I flipped open its latch and peered inside. A—gold tooth?

I flipped open its latch and peered inside. A ... gold tooth?

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was—a whale!

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was ... a whale!

What's the right symbol to use in the examples above?

  • It's difficult for me to judge the tone of the sentence examples you used, so I can't give a specific suggestion. There are many uses for elipses and dashes. Dashes are generally more abrupt and can signify a rapid change of topic. They are useful for emotionally-loaded dialogue interruption, because emotions act quickly on the brain. Elipses are slower and more thoughtful. They can be used to show a character stalling for time in order to represent things more to their advantage, which makes them useful for characters who are crisp, professional or controlled.
    – lea
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 7:54
  • I'm no grammarian, but it would make more sense to me if the pause is placed before the sentences in question rather than in the middle: I flipped open its latch and peered inside... A gold tooth? (same with the dash - whichever works batter.)
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 19:50

4 Answers 4


em dashes are usually used to denote an interruption or sudden change — whether in dialogue, thought or narrative — ellipses are for pauses, again in all respects.

'I just don't see why—
'I don't care what you think,' Johan barked, turning from me before I could protest.

'She was just...' His face turned pale as his memory returned to that night.
'Just what?' I asked, eager for more.

here are some resources:
Jodie Renner Editing
Novel Publicity
Writer's Relief

  • Thanks. I think em dashes are also used in a sudden change of idea?
    – wyc
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 13:43
  • 2
    That's right @AlexandroChen, they represent any kind of interruption, including an interruption to a thought process or even narrative flow; exactly as you've shown in your examples. I've updated my answer accordingly.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 13:50

I might use an M-dash for the whale example, because it's startling. For the gold watch, that's more of a thoughtful pause, so it would take an ellipsis.

Also related on this site: Using dashes in writing dialogue and How not to overuse ellipsis?


Adding to the answers by Lauren Ipsum and CLockeWork.

I'll just look at the second example:

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was — a whale!

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was ... a whale!

It seems to me that the dash as a sign of a sudden change works well in the narrative, but not in direct speech:

"What happened?"

"I found something on the beach," John replied. "I saw something and at first I thought it was an elephant? But elephants don't frequent beaches. It was — a whale!"

To me, this sounds strange. John is talking as if he were writing a book!, which he is not. He is supposed to be speaking with someone. But this works fine:

"It was ... a whale!"

In direct speech, an ellipsis signifies a pause. A dash in direct speech can only signify an interruption, where the speech breaks off and does not continue.

Only in the narrator's narrative, which follows different stylistic principles, does a dash mean a sudden change. Here it cannot mean a break-off, because the narrative does not break off until the end of the book. Only if the narrative is written as if it was spoken, can a dash in the narrative means a break:

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was— What? No. Stop interrupting me, and let me tell my tale. It was a whale!

And an ellipsis has no place in the narrative, in my opinion. What does this mean:

Was it an elephant? No, elephants didn't frequent beaches. It was ... a whale!

Does it mean that the narrator pauses? He cannot, because he is not talking. There are no pauses in writing, or rather, they take a different form, e.g. as full stops, paragraph breaks, and so on. In poetry you might do:

It was. A whale.

or more commonly:

it was
a whale.

In prose you need to use different constructions:

It was, as we found, a whale.

Here, the subsidiary clause, serves as a suspenseful pause.


To sum this up:

(a) ellipsis:

  • dialogue: pause
  • narrative: — (do not use in fiction)

(b) dash:

  • dialogue: break-off
  • narrative: sudden change
  • Ellipsis in narrative parts of fiction works perfectly well, whether for pauses or trailing off. Their use is very common. google.co.uk/…
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 9:18
  • @CLockeWork Please provide an example where it is correctly used and does not evoke spoken language.
    – user5645
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 11:24
  • Finding specific examples is way too hard to Google and I'm not at home at the moment to go through my library, but take a look at points 2 and 3 here: nhwn.wordpress.com/2011/09/13/…
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 11:40
  • Worth noting that while they can be used outside of dialogue they're the kind of thing that can be easily overused
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 11:41

I'd use ellipses for pauses, dashes are usually used for interruption.

"I found this - "

"That doesn't matter, look what I found!"

As opposed to:

"She... She's dead."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.