Let's say two characters are conversing and one character interrupts the other in mid-sentence. How would that actually be shown in dialog? I have seen some use a hyphen at the end of the sentence but I have also seen an ellipsis used as well, but which is the most appropriate?

3 Answers 3


Not a hyphen. Use an em dash. In most word processors, you can insert an em dash by using two hyphens (it will be converted to a single em dash). In LaTeX, use three hyphens (which will be converted). Or, from a character map, copy and paste the em dash.

Interruption, either by being cut off, or by a sudden event, is always shown by an em dash. On the other hand, if the speaker is losing the train of thought, or is tapering off, that is shown by an ellipsis.

Note that some fonts show a long em dash (full em width), while other fonts show a shorter em dash (maybe 75% to 80% of em). If you find the true em dash to be unattractively long, you might cheat an use an en dash instead. This is technically incorrect, but few would notice in print. In any case, it must be noticeably longer than a mere hyphen.

Example, with em dash:

"You never—"

"Don't give me that rubbish. I'm tired of your constant complaints."

Another example of em dash, used as a stronger alternative to parentheses:

It was dark — especially for London — and stormy night.

Example use of ellipsis:

She looked out at the rain, and mumbled to herself, "I wonder if…"

EDIT: There is a difference between the en dash (EN) and the em dash (EM). The en dash is used to indicate a range of things (say, between times or dates). Alas, the most common word processor rarely inserts an automatic en dash, but you can insert it by other means. In LaTeX, it is two hyphens, automatically replaced.

  • Want hyphens and dashes the same thing? Apr 17, 2017 at 4:50
  • 2
    A hyphen is very short. It is used to indicate when a word breaks, at the end of a line. It is also used in some compounded words, such as fther-in-law. An em dash is longer — and indecates things such as an interruption, or break in thought. Note that two or three hyphens may only be used, if the software automatically converts them to a single em dash.
    – user23046
    Apr 17, 2017 at 13:52
  • 1
    "Interruption ... is always shown by an em dash." I have seen it shown both ways. @DanielCann There is also en-dash, which is a shorter than em-dash and is used to represent range, e.g. "I work 9–5", but it is uncommon in prose
    – Lew
    Apr 17, 2017 at 20:29
  • I didn't even know there were 2 kinds of dashes, haha, @Lew Apr 18, 2017 at 6:02
  • An en-dash is used in replacing the word "to." I work nine to five; the score was three to two; and so forth
    – Stu W
    Apr 18, 2017 at 14:03

The choice is stylistic. It's almost always your decision, as the author. Do what you feel would be appropriate and convey your meaning well.

However, it goes without saying that some publishers may have a certain way they want you to format your work. Be sure to fit their guidelines.

For me personally, I use hyphens. I feel like they work better than an ellipsis, even though I have seen some authors use ellipses.

I hope this helped you.


Standard punctuation for an incomplete sentence is ellipsis.

But don't.

Don't have one character interrupt another at all. Dialogue is not speech and the page is not the screen. The page is an asynchronous media. Events do not unfold in real time but in read time. It can take far longer to read the description of a complex event that happens quickly than a simple event that takes a long time. So time based effects, like interruptions, are impossible to dramatize well in prose. Instead, the drama should come through what is said, not the way it is said.

As far as is possible, let each character have their full say. If one must interrupt the other, let it be a full and final interruption, a dismissal, not just two people talking over each other.

  • 2
    I respectfully disagree. While I see your point, I have to note that a forcefully interrupted statement may have an entirely different impact on how the events of the story unfold then the same statement issued in its entirety and then debated: "Luke, I am your... (interrupted)" would leave the reader with a lot more ambiguous understanding of what is going on, then "Luke, I am your father.", dismiss it or not. It is a tool to use, not a taboo.
    – Lew
    Apr 20, 2017 at 19:16
  • 1
    @Lew, yes it would. But that same effect can be created by other means. One of the biggest problems in writing today is that people are more influenced by movies and TV than they are by books when it comes to storytelling technique. Our palate has been polluted. But these devices don't actually work well in prose, and we should be proactive in working to help writers practice good prose technique, not encouraging them to try to force screen technique onto the page.
    – user16226
    Apr 20, 2017 at 19:20
  • If I was aiming for brevity and quick action pacing, I would struggle to give up ellipsis mid-phrase and starting another character to talk in favor of a much more dense dialog tag "he was suddenly interrupted by"—and I would still have to use ellipses. There are many things which affect evolving writing technique, and the influence of a different medium may not be that detrimental.
    – Lew
    Apr 20, 2017 at 19:30

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