In a recent blog, I discussed how to properly use the three types of dashes in writing.
Today, I’d like to further the discussion on punctuation marks, namely those used specifically to clarify or to emphasize a point. They are the comma, the Em dash and the ellipsis—the plural being “ellipses.” Sometimes, these three punctuation types are used interchangeably in modern writing, both in dialogue and narration, but there are specific rules for their use.
The question I present is this. Is their use solely at the discretion of the writer . . . or should the precise rules of language be followed? Let’s take a closer look at the three punctuation marks in question before forming any conclusions.
The Comma: The comma is used to separate elements within a sentence. It’s often said that anytime the writer intends the reader to break for a breath, that’s where a comma should be placed. But people breathe at different times when reading the same sentences, so that rule doesn’t hold up. For today’s discussion, a comma is used to separate phrases that intend to clarify previous words (such as, “He was a handsome fellow, with hair the color of gold.”).
However, the comma often doesn’t create the emphasis or drama that a writer needs to convey, and that’s where the next two punctuation marks are used more effectively.
The Em Dash: Most grammatical rulebooks indicate that the em dash is used as an interruption in dialogue or to emphasize a phrase in both dialogue and narration. It’s a much stronger punctuation mark than the comma but less formal than a colon, and it’s a more relaxed form of punctuation than the more technical use of a set of parentheses to explain or emphasize a specific point (such as, “He was a handsome fellow—with hair the color of gold that shimmered like the setting sun.”).
The em dash creates more drama and can be used as a strong aside in narrative (such as, “He was a handsome fellow—with god-like golden hair that turned every eye in a room he entered.”), or used for dramatic interruption of speech (such as, “He was a handsome fellow—I’m sorry, I know talking about him makes you feel uncomfortable.”). For a more in-depth description of em dashes, please refer to my recent blog on the types of dashes.
The Ellipsis: The use of ellipses denotes a small pause (“He was a handsome fellow . . . with great hair.”), a stutter (“This guy was . . . so . . . so handsome.”) or for dialogue and narrative that trails off (“When this guy walked in that room, it was like everyone turned and . . .”).
Some of the most heated discussions that writers have involve the distinction and proper use of em dashes vs ellipses, but the rules are quite clear. Ellipses are reserved for when the writer wants the reader to momentarily pause or for phrases that trail off. The complete thought, whether it is in dialogue or narration, is not stated but the meaning is understood never the less.
An ellipsis is always three dots, no more and no less. Style guidelines vary as to whether or not to use an ending period if the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence. Most guidelines are satisfied with no final period.
And there is an on-going discussion as to specifically how ellipses are presented, depending on if the writer follows the Associated Press (AP) style or the Chicago style.
The AP style of ellipsis consists of three non-spaced periods, with a space before and after (“He was a handsome fellow … with such golden hair.”). The AP style often is referred to as a closed ellipsis. This contrasts to the Chicago style that presents as three spaced periods, with spacing before and after (“He was a handsome fellow . . . with such golden hair.”).
And then there’s the complication that arises in modern literature where we see more use of the AP style without the spacing before and after (“He was a handsome fellow…with such golden hair.”), but the rules in both the AP and Chicago styles are clear about using spacing before and after the three-dot ellipsis.
Grammatical rules assure that uniform guidelines are followed so that the reader’s experience is all about focusing on the story rather than about negotiating unique writing styles. I should point out, however, that many writers have been successful with unique styles of writing.
Although there may be established sentence structure rules, individual styles of writing sometimes preclude the rules. Above all, a GREAT WRITER is consistent with his or her punctuation style to enhance the reader’s experience and to avoid unnecessary grammatical distractions.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!