Don’t— Stop . . . Don’t stop! Ellipses and Em Dashes

You already know to end a sentence with a period, and you know the other forms of terminating punctuation too. Use a question mark, also known as an interrogation point, to express a query. Use an exclamation point to show an outcry of excitement or emphasis. These are all valid ways to stop a sentence.

Edie’s feeling agitated and bored.

Will Trixie come to her rescue?

Trixie and Edie are at it again!

But sometimes a sentence trails off or gets interrupted, and we have to end it in a different way. Lots of people use ellipses and em dashes incorrectly though the rules are easy.

Use ellipses points to tell the reader that the speaker’s speech is faltering or to emphasize that you have deliberately left something out.

Trixie’s eyes wandered over Edie’s exposed breasts, down her trembling belly, and finally focused . . .

Think of ellipses as the literary French film tilt, when the lovers reach for each other across the pillow and the camera angle flies up to the ceiling, implying that sex ensues.

Ellipses can also show a speaker’s stutter, as in the next example.

“I’m . . . I’m not sure . . . what I want . . . ” Edie whispered.

Ellipses should have a space before the first period, after the last, and one between each of the three periods like this “ . . . ”  Space those dots out rather than shoving them together.

The em dash expresses interruptions in the flow of a sentence, somebody literally interrupting someone else in dialogue or an additional thought that interrupts the action.

“Oh, Trixie,” said Edie. “If you don’t stop—”

Trixie caught Edie’s lips in a rough kiss—she loved Edie’s lips—interrupting her.

Create an em dash in most word processing software by placing two dashes between two words with no spaces on either side—like that.  The software should automatically turn the two dashes into one for you.

What is Sexy Grammar?

Sexy Grammar is a lot of things. It’s the fun way I present writing tools and grammar guidelines like this one. But it’s also a philosophy—that writing and art satisfy a human urge to create, not unlike sex. Sexy Grammar is about letting your inner writer be sexy—turned on, engaged, and unapologetic. When you do that, your writing gets sexy, and that attracts readers.

  1. Wow ~ thanks so much for the great post! I’ve been doing it totally wrong for years… I mean . . .

  2. Brilliant! Your sentences about Trixie and Edie this week are wonderful.

    I was thinking you might like to add the second common purpose for emdashes. When used as a pair, the longer dashes elegantly bracket off a thought that’s related to the word or idea prior to the first in the pair, but which—unlike the words after the second emdash—isn’t necessary for the direct completion of the sentence. As I understand it, they’re similar in this case to a pair of commas or an open- and closed- parenthesis pair. (I think parentheses form a stronger separation, and commas a weaker separation, than emdashes…)

    “Under Michel’s persistent lips, Trixie’s knees—still stung with rugburns from yesterday’s tussle with Edie in the Spielmans’ guest room closet—were now a responsive erogenous zone.”

  3. Ben, thanks for your kind words and your excellent example. Sure, this is a great use of em dash. The key is to use it when you want to create a sense of interruption.

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