velocitygrass asks: What is the correct punctuation for speech that "trails off"? What is the punctuation for interruption (either by yourself or someone else)?
Many people will tell you that trailing-off punctuation is largely a result of stylistic choices. Personally, I disagree. Punctuation tells you how to read a sentence. It's as scientific as writing ever gets. Each symbol for punctuation correlates to a different, specific meaning and the punctuations for pauses each determine a different length of pause. Punctuation that indicates trailing off or interruptions can be very different, as well, and if not properly punctuated could convey a meaning very different from the intended meaning.
velocitygrass was kind enough to provide some examples from her own fic, so all SGA examples are from her own work with corrected punctuation.
Ellipses (. . .) are used to indicate an omission or a pause. The word "ellipsis" comes from the ancient Greek roots "ek" (out) and "lip" (from the verb "leipo," "leave"), so it literally means "leaving something out" or "something left out."
Like all issues of grammar, stylebooks have some varying information on ellipses, though this is restricted to how the ellipsis should be printed.
The Chicago Manual of Style lists two commonly used methods of using (and printing) ellipses.
- 1. Use three dots for any omission
2. Omissions within a sentence should use three dots (...) while omissions between sentences should use a period and a space followed by three dots (. . .)
The Chicago Manual of Style also says that an ellipsis at the end of a sentence with no sentence following should be followed by a period.
The Modern Language Association (MLA) states that an ellipsis must include spaces before and after each dot (. . .) in all uses. It also agrees that an ellipsis ending a sentence (any sentence) must include a period followed by the ellipsis. To differentiate pauses from omissions, previous editions of the MLA handbook required that the ellipsis be set in brackets, though that style requirement has since been removed.
Personally, I prefer the MLA style, which is what I will be using in my examples. As always, it's okay to use a different style as long as you consistently follow that same style.
In speech, ellipses are typically going to indicate pauses and trailing off.
Ellipses can be used to indicate a pause in speech. Perhaps the character is thinking in the middle of a sentence or is briefly distracted in his thoughts. Both are great uses for an ellipsis.
- "I'm Daniel, it means, uh . . . 'God is my judge'."
"Rodney, you know that I'd never . . . do something like that to you."
Ed scratched the back of his neck. "Al, there's something I've been . . . meaning to tell you."
Ellipses can also be used to indicate speech that trails off from one sentence, leading into a new sentence.
- "Jack, it's not that easy. . . ." Daniel adjusts his glasses. "Forgetting about Sha're isn't easy."
"I didn't know that I. . . . I mean, since I left her, I've thought about it all the time."
"I know that putting both hands together symbolizes a circle. . . . But what about the runes?"
(Chapter 23: Knocking on Heaven's Door)
Note that all of the examples that have sentences that end in an ellipsis have a period immediately following the last word. The terminating period should be placed as normal, with the ellipsis following.
Ellipses can be use to indicate a thought that trails off and is never finished. This is similar to being used to indicate an omission (because grammatically and sensibly there is an end to the sentence even if it's not printed).
- Daniel blinked against the harsh light. "I never really thought. . . ."
"Rodney, I just . . ." John began helplessly.
"Haven't you ever just . . . ?"
Again, sentences that end in an ellipsis have a terminating period followed by the ellipsis. The final example shows a trailing question—which is punctuated differently. For a question that is trailing off, place the ellipsis with a space after the final word with the question mark following the ellipsis.
For dialogue that ends with a dialogue tag (like in the second example), there is no comma used before or after the ellipsis. The ellipsis is used as it is for pauses within a sentence. The dialogue tag is essentially the end of the sentence.
Ellipses are often misused in dialogue. I choose to illustrate ellipsis use with an animanga fandom because manga do use ellipses to begin sentences or as dialogue (". . .") to indicate a silence or hesitation.
- Ed: "Hardly the reaction of a loyal subordinate."
Roy: ". . . He's got a point."
(Chapter 24: Fullmetal Alchemist)
Hawkeye: "It would appear that either this document came through a time vortex, or someone made a grave error."
Roy: ". . ."
Driver: "Why don't you just meet them before you make your decision."
(Chapter 23: Knocking on Heaven's Door)
There is a certain amount of creative license that allows writers (especially in a visual format like manga and comics) to get away with both of these abuses, but really, the ellipsis isn't made for that. When writing for animanga fandoms, these uses for the ellipsis are okay (since they are supported by the style of canon), but I would recommend using them sparingly.
For further information on the ellipsis:
Ellipsis at Merriam-Webster
Besides being my favorite piece of punctuation, an em dash (—) is used to indicate a break in thought or sentence structure, to introduce a phrase added for emphasis, definition, or explanation, or to separate two clauses.
An em dash is about the length of a lower case m, which is how its name was derived. On a Mac, you can type an em dash by pressing shift + option + -. On a PC, you can make an em dash by pressing ALT + 0151. If your computer is unable to create this useful piece of punctuation you can use two hyphens (--) as an acceptable way to indicate an em dash.
Em dashes do not have spaces before or after them. They are wedged firmly between words, fitting snugly against the terminating and initiating letters.
Within a Sentence
Within a sentence, an em dash can be used for clarification, to change direction, or for emphasis.
- Clarification: "Exactly how many of these loops have you—we—been through?"
("Window of Opportunity")
Change Direction: "Rodney, how long do you think—Oh God, what's that?"
Emphasis: "I'm not saying that—I'm not—but Colonel Mustang is still a bastard."
Often an em dash is misused as a semi-colon. Both pieces of punctuation can be used to connect clauses so it's fairly common to confuse them. The easiest way to decide which punctuation to use is to understand the intent of the clauses. Is the second clause redirecting the focus of the first clause? If yes, you should use an em dash. If no, (if the second clause is just additional information) you should use a semi-colon.
Em dashes can also be used in dialogue to indicate an interruption. In these cases the em dash is acting as terminating punctuation, like a period that indicates an incomplete sentence.
- Daniel: "You just gonna sit in here all day and, uh—"
Sam: "I'm not sulking."
Daniel: "Working. Gonna say 'working'."
"Rodney, how long do you think—" John began for the fifth time that day.
"Oh God, what's that?" Rodney shouted.
Havoc pats his pockets. "The price is a little stiff and I'm just short right—"
"Are you saying I'm so short that I can't even count that high?" Ed frothed.
When used as terminating punctuation, periods, question marks, and exclamation marks should not be used.
For dialogue that ends with a tag line ("Rodney, how long do you think—" John began for the fifth time that day.), a comma should not be used after the em dash. The em dash is treated like a question mark or an exclamation mark, which are both followed by the closing quote for the dialogue.
Because velocitygrass mentioned en dashes in her original question, I just want to point out that en dashes are typically used to indicate a span, such as 1–4. The dash in between the numbers 1 and 4 is an en dash (not a hyphen; a hyphen is shorter whereas an en dash is about the length of a lower case n). Hyphens are used only in hyphenated words such as forty-two or Wyndam-Pryce. En dashes are not used to punctuate for pauses or as terminating punctuation.
For further information on em dashs, en dashes, and hyphens:
Get It Write: En Dashes and Em Dashes
So, velocitygrass, when trailing off in a pause or omission, use an ellipsis, but be sure to punctuate correctly when terminating a sentence. When indicating a change in direction, either by the speaker or another speaker, use an em dash. Just be mindful of your intent with the dialogue and you should be able to make the right decisions in your pausing punctuation.