6

This is my first time in writers, so I apologise if I make a mistake. I've searched for this, but I can't find a concrete and complete answer. Please forgive me if I've somehow missed it and it had already been answered.

What I'm dealing with right now is interruptions within dialogue and how to punctuate them (with em dashes).

(Please keep in mind that this is British style, so the dashes will be set off by spaces before and after, except when it comes to quotation marks).

As far as I know, when an action interrupts dialogue, the dashes go inside the quotation marks:

“She’s a lovely girl, but —” he took a puff of his cigarette “— she cannot dance for the life of her.”

When the action doesn't interrupt dialogue but instead happens simultaneously, the dashes go outside the quotation marks:

"She's a lovely girl, but" — he lowered his voice — "she cannot dance for the life of her.

Now, my question is this: how do we treat the /interruption/. Do we capitalise it, punctuate it? Should it look like this?

“She’s a lovely girl, but —” He took a puff of his cigarette. “— she cannot dance for the life of her.”

“She’s a lovely girl, but” — He lowered his voice. — “she cannot dance for the life of her.

Is each case different? If so, which one should be capitalised and punctuated and which one should remain bare? Is the rule of the dashes correct in the first place?

Visually and stylistically, I prefer for both of them to be bare, but I don't know if there is a rule. I'd like to follow it if it exists.

Thank you!

  • Hi Emmie, and welcome to Writers! I could be wrong here, but this might be better suited for English Language & Usage SE. It seems like more of a grammar question than a writing question to me. I could be wrong though. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Oct 12 '16 at 5:51
  • I pondered that, but there's no grammar rule that I could find. I don't think this format could be used in anything other than in creative writing. I'm trying to find another situation in which this could come in handy, and I'm drawing a blank. It's more like on the fence? Basically, I feel like this is something that writers will have experience with, and grammarians that go about it more in a general sense would have more problems with rationalising. I feel like writers would be more f help in this situation. I can move it, though? – Emmie Oct 12 '16 at 6:29
  • 2
    I think this is a borderline case. It would be perfectly on topic in English.SE, and I'm sure you'd get great and knowledgeable answers there, but I also feel that formatting dialog is something that many writers struggle with, so I would actually prefer to keep this question here. – user5645 Oct 12 '16 at 7:25
  • Closely related, not exactly a duplicate, but useful: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/1794/… – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Oct 12 '16 at 10:24
  • I've been a reader for more years than I care to count and both these forms are new to me. I think the chance of the average reader knowing what either of them mean, let alone the difference between them, is close to zero. I would recast as: "She's a lovely girl," he said, lowering his voice, "but she cannot dance for the life of her. – user16226 Oct 12 '16 at 13:27
4

The em-dash is used when something breaks off. Permanently. Here is an example:

“She’s a lovely girl, but—”
“Shut up!” Ronnie interrupted him.

The em-dash may also be used when there is an interruption in the thought of the same speaker. Here is an example:

“She’s a lovely girl, but—and you may hate me for saying so—she cannot dance for the life of her.”

The em-dash is not used when a comment by the narrator is inserted in dialog. The closing and opening quotes are enough. Here is an example:

“She’s a lovely girl,” he said, “but she cannot dance for the life of her.”

As you know, the full stop at the end of a sentence is replaced by a comma when the narrator continues the dialog with a comment, as for example here:

“She’s a lovely girl,” he said.

where “She’s a lovely girl.” becomes “She’s a lovely girl,”. Narrator inserts are always set off with commas, unless the dialog is an exclamation or a question (where the "!" and "?" are kept, e.g. “Is she?” he asked.). This will be important when we look at your example later, so remember it.

The em-dash is also not used when a speaker pauses. Use an ellipsis instead:

“She’s a lovely girl, but…she cannot dance for the life of her.”

When you want to insert a comment by the narrator during a pause by the speaker, as in your example, the inserted comment by the narrator is enough to make the reader perceive a pause. In the third example above, the "he said" will be perceived as a small pause by the reader, similar to, or maybe a tiny bit longer than, the one we make between clauses (signified by a comma or full stop). To give the effect of the speaker making a distinct and longer than usual pause, just insert a narrator comment wherever the speaker pauses, make the comment of the narrator long enough to give a clear impression of a pause, and, if you want to be extra sure, say that the speaker pauses. So either:

“She’s a lovely girl,” he took a puff of his cigarette, “but she cannot dance for the life of her.”

or

“She’s a lovely girl,” he paused and took a puff of his cigarette, “but she cannot dance for the life of her.”

Now, finally coming to your original example, we can put all of this together. First, a comment by the narrator has the effect of a pause; any other indication of a pause, such as an ellipsis, is unnecessary. Second, the inserted narrator comment is always set off with commas. So the correct way to punctuate your example is either:

“She’s a lovely girl, but,” he took a puff of his cigarette, “she cannot dance for the life of her.”

or

“She’s a lovely girl, but,” he paused and took a puff of his cigarette, “she cannot dance for the life of her.”

You can add ellipses, but that is not neccessary:

“She’s a lovely girl, but…,” he took a puff of his cigarette, “…she cannot dance for the life of her.”


The rules of punctuation have two limitations.

One, they only cover the most common cases. The rarer a certain construction is, the less likely it is that there will exist a rule that explains how you must punctuate it. That means that on the edges of common usage you'll have to extrapolate from the rules and punctuate your writing to make as much sense as you can.

Two, the rules of punctuation are binding only in schools and offices. In the real world, everyone can write however they like. There is no law to forbid you from using em dashes in whichever way you like, and your grandmother won't go to jail if she puts commas in the wrong places.

If you look at contemporary fiction, you can note many styles of punctuation that contradict all rules and style guides. And mostly, in those cases, these deviations from the rules work better than the rules. They convey a meaning that rule-based punctuation does not allow.

As the Russian proverb says: Если нельзя, но очень хочется, то можно. (If you mustn't, but really want to, you may.)

  • I formatted the dashes American style, but with or without spaces the answer remains the same. – user5645 Oct 12 '16 at 7:26
  • I have seen em-dashes used in place of ellipsis, but it always looked strange to me. – Lew Oct 12 '16 at 16:58
  • 1
    I agree with everything except your last example. I would prefer to write: "She's a lovely girl, but . . ." He took a puff of his cigarette. "She cannot dance for the life of her." This emphasizes the hiatus of the cigarette puff and feels less awkward. YMMV – Robusto Oct 13 '16 at 21:32
  • I agree very much about the limits of punctuation, but there is a third: Punctuation conveys no meaning unless the reader recognizes what it means. Esoteric punctuation rules may settle formatting disputes, but we should never rely on them to express a distinction or create an effect other than creating a pause. The chances of the average reader picking up the intended distinctions or experiencing the intended effect are slim. These subtleties are the job of words, not punctuation marks. – user16226 Oct 14 '16 at 3:47
3

(This construction is a pain in the ass to punctuate, so this is a good question to ask.)

When your narration is a full sentence, it must be punctuated like a full sentence. With M-dashes:

“She’s a lovely girl, but — ” He lowered his voice. “ — she cannot dance for the life of her.”

“She’s a lovely girl, but — ” He took a puff of his cigarette. “ — she cannot dance for the life of her.”

If you want to use a full sentence of narration and not use M-dashes, then treat them as three separate items. Sentence fragments are okay in this structure.

“She’s a lovely girl.” He took a puff of his cigarette. “But she cannot dance for the life of her.”

“She’s a lovely girl.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “But she cannot dance for the life of her.”

“She’s a lovely girl.” He paused and took a puff of his cigarette. “But she cannot dance for the life of her.”

If your narration is a continuation of the opening dialogue, treat it as such:

“She’s a lovely girl,” he said, taking a puff of his cigarette, “but she cannot dance for the life of her.”

“She’s a lovely girl,” he said, and then continued in a lower voice, “but she cannot dance for the life of her.”

or if your narration ends before the second piece of dialogue:

“She’s a lovely girl,” he said, and took a puff of his cigarette. “But she cannot dance for the life of her.”

“She’s a lovely girl,” he said. He looked around and continued in a lower voice. “But she cannot dance for the life of her.”

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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