(This article was published in slightly different form in The Writing Cooperative.)
An editor, like an ornithologist, stumbles upon recurrences. I refer to the airy (second definition)—but not aery!—misuse of ellipses and em-dashes. These two marks—like some species of birds (say, the spotted towhee and the black-headed grosbeak)—are frequently confused (not to say misused). Yes, as an editor, I see ellipsis and em-dash errors in almost every story and essay I get. So let's jump in . . .
The typography of the ellipsis.
Let’s talk form before function. An ellipsis is a unit of three dots (please don’t call them periods) in a row. Most typographers separate the three dots with spaces: (. . .), not (...). Sometimes these spaces are “thin”; other times, “thick.” (The Chicago Manual of Style is in the latter camp, but my favorite book of typography—The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst—considers the thick stance a “Victorian eccentricity.”)
In any case—and, yes, I’m a bit of a neatnik with this—at least a little space between dots will keep your ellipses from looking like those found in your basic email or Reddit post. Many word processing programs automatically add the spaces when three dots are typed in a row, a refreshing sign of human progress. Otherwise, you might just use the space bar: dot-space-dot-space-dot.
Ellipses used for elision (omission).
Now, let’s consider how ellipses are used in context. I have Joyce’s Ulysses open on my desk, so, at the risk of introducing needless abstrusiosities, allow me to partake therefrom. I’ll use the following quote:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing-gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000, p.1)
And we’re off . . .
1. Most of us already know that ellipses can signify that words have been elided from the middle of text:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came . . . bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed. (1)
Note the spaces on both sides of the ellipsis. (If, in my example, the spaces between the dots do not match the spaces before and after the ellipsis, please write a sternly worded missive to the publisher of this short essay. The author shall remain blameless.)
2. We might elide words from the end of a sentence:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead . . . (1)
If we were using quotation marks, we would not have a space after the ellipsis, as if the ellipsis were a word itself: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead . . .”
3. Or we might elide words from the beginning of a sentence:
. . . Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed. (1)
Again, we note that the ellipsis is spaced from the words around it, in this case, “Buck.”
4. An admission: (2) above is actually a fragment. (Just typing it made me a touch sudoriferous.) Remember, the ellipsis does not replace the period. Usually, we’ll want to add a fourth dot (an official period), to signify the end the actual sentence:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead . . . . (1)
Or, more interesting:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead . . . . A yellow dressing-gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. (1)
So here we know that words have been elided after “stairhead” and before the end of the sentence (but not beyond it). Study this one carefully: the ellipsis follows the word “stairhead” (note the space) and precedes the sentence’s period. In other words, we have “stairhead [ellipsis] [period],” or more precisely: “stairhead [space] [ellipsis] [space] [period]. Few get this rule right. It’s worth understanding.
5. If, on the other hand, we make it to the end of the cited sentence but elide words immediately after this point, we’ll add the ellipsis after the first sentence’s period:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. . . . He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei. (1)
The period follows the word “crossed,” signifying the end of the first sentence (no space before it, as usual with periods), and then, after a space, we have the ellipsis.
Quick note: In fiction, writers often take liberties with the four-dot rule (as I did for (2) above, and elsewhere). Something about four dots in a row snags the eye, it seems. But if you’re trying to quote carefully and correctly, especially in nonfiction, use that fourth dot.
Ellipses used for rhetorical pause.
The ellipses in all of the above examples, in which I was citing from a prior text, signified elision. In fiction, however, we usually see the ellipsis used in a related but different way: to signify a rhetorical pause (possibly silence, possibly hesitation). (There should be a word for “related but different”: I proffer: relifferent. Sounds Joycean to my ear.)
6. Here’s an example (at the risk of succumbing to exhibitionishisticicity, I’m going to continue to use my old copy of Ulysses here—just flipping around):
The secret panel beside the chimney slid back and in the recess appeared . . . Haines! (539)
I’m not eliding anything here (you’ll have to trust me). The ellipsis represents a pause in the description, the passing of time: we can imagine the panel sliding back, and the tension created thereby.
7. Here’s a snippet of a (one-sided) conversation on a tālāfānā:
—Hello? Evening Telegraph here . . . Hello? . . . Who’s there? . . . Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes . . . (173)
A perfect use of ellipses . (And (spoiler) a perfect foreshadow of the novel’s end.)
8. One final and interesting ellipsistical use: in dialogue, some postmodern and post-postmodern (and post-post-postmodern) writers use ellipses to indicate silence (which, indeed, falls under the definition of “rhetorical pause”). Here’s an example (and now I move on to another tome of mine, which just happens to be sailing around on the calm sea of my desk: Infinite Jest):
‘Stop. Wait before leaving. Please conduct me to a lavatory. . . . Are you as yet there?’
‘. . .’
‘Are you as yet there? I very—’
‘Whuffff watch where you’re going kid for Christ’s sake.’ (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006, p. 568)
It’s clear there was silence after the first speaker’s (first) question (hence its repetition one line later). (Why did David Foster Wallace, an American author, use single quotes? There seem to be a few theories floating around. Perhaps a reader of proper scholarment can elucidate us in a Medium response.)
The above example leads me nicely to . . .
Em-dashes used for interruption.
I wrote about the uses of and differences between em-dashes (—), en-dashes (–), and hyphens (-) in another post. To put it simply, em-dashes are usually used to indicate some form of interruption. (Joyce’s use of em-dashes above (5 and 7) to indicate the beginning of a speaker’s dialogue is relatively unusual, and, maybe, kind of Irish (N.B. Bringhurst calls this method “less fussy than quotation marks”).) So ellipses signify elision or rhetorical pausing. Em-dashes signify interruption. This is the big difference between ellipses and em-dashes. Let’s look again at the Infinite Jest quote.
‘Are you as yet there? I very—’
‘Whuffff watch where you’re going kid for Christ’s sake.’ (568)
Clearly, the second speaker is interrupting the first speaker. Hence, the em-dash (usually no spaces before or after em-dashes). If Wallace had used an ellipsis, it would have suggested a hesitationary pause after “very,” which is a completely different effect.
‘Are you as yet there? I very . . .’ [What was I going to say? Maybe I should watch where I’m walking.]
‘Whuffff watch where you’re going kid for Christ’s sake.’ (568)
Wallace used the word apocope in Infinite Jest, a word that means: the loss or omission of the last vowel in a word, together with any consonants that follow it. This would also be a great use for an em-dash, as I’m sure you agr—
These punctuationary rules are worth getting right. They, I think, can make a difference when trying to get a work accepted by a literary journal (getting published is really hard even for the most grammatically correct of stories).
So (and here’s the summary) use ellipses to indicate elision or rhetorical pause (hesitation, etc.), and make sure you have them spaced correctly. Use em-dashes for interruption, and make sure you (correctly) don’t space them. As Joyce might (and did) say, that puts the matter into a nutshell.
Selected glossary of (mostly) made-up words.
abstrusiosities (Ulysses) Things that are abstruse.
ellipsistical (the author) Of or relating to an ellipsis.
exhibitionishisticicity (Ulysses) Showing off, I guess.
hesitationary (the author) Characterized with hesitation.
neatnik (Infinite Jest) A stickler for neatness, cleanliness (especially when it comes to punctuation!) (a real word).
punctuationary (the author) Of or relating to punctuation.
relifferent (the author) Related but different.
scholarment (Ulysses) Scholarly learning.
sudoriferous (Infinite Jest) Sweaty (a real word).
tālāfānā (Ulysses) Telephone.
—Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.