Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

The ellipsis (. . .) and the em dash (—) are two of my favourite members of the punctuation family. If I have to choose one that I value more than the other, then it would have to be the ellipsis. Why? Because those three dots allow me to leave out superfluous text from a quotation; but, they are even more special than that—my sentence can trail off, allowing readers to think about an unfinished action, thought or idea . . .

The ellipsis (or ellipses in plural) means ‘falling short’ or ‘omission’ in Ancient Greek. When placed at the beginning or end of a sentence, those three dots can instill a feeling of melancholy. The ellipsis calls for a slight pause in speech or any form of text, and can be used to suggest a tense or awkward moment of silence that can sometimes border on sarcasm (“Oh . . . really?”). More broadly, the ellipsis operates as a short meditative pause, equivalent to white space at the end of a chapter or on a page of poetry. Infinite things can happen during an ellipsis.

Here are three very different examples:

On 10 August 2013, Jane Sullivan (journalist for The Age) wrote an article called How the web’s a write-off. Sullivan ends her piece with:

The most important thing, I reckon, is to remember that the writer is in control of the tool, not the other way around. But it’s hard. Excuse me a moment while I check my inbox . . .

Here are a couple of sentences from Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991):

(Chapter VII) Life throws a million things, good and bad, at me, but all I really care about . . .

(Chapter X) Love, I’m putrid with . . . with happiness.

The ‘Chicago Manual of Style’ recommends that an ellipsis be formed by typing three full stops, each with a space on both sides . . . I like that. However, Chicago also suggests that an ellipsis at the end of a sentence—with another sentence following—should have a full stop (for a total of four dots) . . . I don’t like that. I prefer the Australian Style Manual (John Wiley & Sons) rule: Use only three dot points, even if the ellipsis points come at the end of the sentence—in other words, don’t add a full stop.

What about the em dash? It is a typographical symbol roughly equivalent to the width of a capital ‘M’, and it is sometimes used instead of the ellipsis. Em dashes can be paired like parentheses—that is, to enclose a word, or a phrase, or a clause—or they can be used to emphasise the information that follows it, or to show—an abrupt— interruption of thought or speech. I prefer to enclose subsidiary information within a pair of em dashes rather than using parentheses (round brackets look like whispering through cupped hands, reducing the importance of the words). The em dash symbol is difficult to find in Microsoft Word; there are keyboard short-cuts, but the convoluted way is: ‘insert’/ ‘symbol’/ ‘more symbols’/ ‘special characters’. . . The ellipsis symbol (…) in Word is not my preferred spacing.

If there are too many em dashes and ellipses on a page then the writing may take on the appearance of Morse code—and readers will signal a SOS. It has been said before: we need to create sentences that flow with structural clarity and elegance by exploring all punctuation options: a dash here, an ellipsis there, or a semi-colon, even a comma . . .

A sentence with insufficient punctuation leaves the reader breathless—but, a procession of stop-and-go punctuation is a hint to an editor that a sentence is over-stuffed, over-worked, or needs rethinking . . .


PS . . . there’s also the en dash (–), which is usually the width of a typesetter’s letter ‘N’—thus, its name. We use this dash to indicate inclusive dates and numbers with spaces either side of the dash: December 21–January 9; pp. 11–19. There are many other uses; however, most of us mere mortals use the hyphen (‑), the most commonly used dash.



that or which?


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