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An ellipsis is three or four dots with spaces in between . . . and an em dash is a long dash, usually made by typing two single (en) dashes — next to each other, usually with no spaces between them and their adjoining words. They are called en or em because of their lengths, m being longer than n. En dashes are usually used as hyphens within particular words, and em dashes are used either within sentences or at the ends of them.
Not all authors have formal degrees in English, and most certainly, not many readers do either. Readers and book clubs that aren’t also writers are very unlikely to have lengthy debates about the correct use of em dashes and ellipses. Unless something is particularly jarring to a reader, they aren’t going to care whether any particular use of an em dash is grammatically sound or not, as long as they continue to enjoy the book they’re reading. I’ve spoken to several “normal” readers on the subject and most of them told me that they’d never thought about it, quite a few said that they preferred the use of only one or the other throughout any book, while two (out of thirty) said that while it didn’t overly bother them or spoil their reading experience, they were very occasionally aware that maybe an ellipsis would have been better than an em dash or vice versa.
From a formatting perspective, I’ve always preferred the use of one or the other—it just looks cleaner to me, because I know that only a few people, if any, will be mortally offended by this, but from an editing point of view, this has always made me feel guilty. Because I do proof the work of others as well as my own, I now go for the correct usage unless otherwise instructed by the author. Most Indies go for one or the other, but maybe we should rethink that route now. With most self-publishing authors wanting their books to be better than their traditionally published counterparts, we should try not to leave ourselves open to any criticism if we can avoid it. Maybe we should mix things up a little with our dots and dashes after all.
The short clue here is that unless used within a sentence where they will be more effective than commas or other marks, the em dash signals an abrupt or normal stop, whereas the ellipsis conveys either a little more time between the adjoining words, or the fact that words are missing. When it comes to the end of sentences, the em dash is more effective if the words are cut off abruptly or interrupted. They could be abruptly cut off if the speaker suddenly realised that they shouldn’t be saying what they are. The story would go on from there nicely without any reader confusion, so what comes before and after should flow. If the speaker has been interrupted the next sentence will indicate that. If the sentence is finished off in a dreamy sort of way, then possibly the ellipsis is your go to. It all depends on how you want your reader to “hear” what your characters are saying.
Within sentences—I like to use em dashes rather than parentheses (brackets) to expand on any particular point. If your speaker wants to insert something for emphasis also, I like the use of the em dash, but if he is stammering or missing words then the ellipsis might convey that better. Ellipses should definitely be used where you are leaving words out of a quoted sentence. Obviously the ways in which these things can be used exceed my couple of pointers here, and as I said, we writers can have tendencies to get a little bull-headed when we prefer one thing over another–whether “wrong” or “right” in the views of others.
The written English language is often very different in different parts of the world today. You get UK English, US English, Australian English, and so on, and some people get quite hot under the collar about correct usage of words.
Different editors favour different styles too. Grammar is grammar and not generally alright to take too many liberties with, but in this particular instance I think that personal choice works well if the words convey what the author wants them to convey. Unless of course every paragraph has lots of unended or breaks in sentences—then correct usage is definitely the way to go.
Happy 2018 fellow scribblers!