I'm trying to show that the narration (third person limited) is being interrupted by the character's thought process, and I'm not sure what punctuation is best for this situation.

So far, I've tried two approaches: dashes and parentheses. I'm not a huge fan of either. Is there a better way? Alternatively, is there a rule about which mark to use?

Here's an example:

1. Single Dash: The demon - she? He? gestured towards the supply wagons.

2. Parentheses: The demon (she? He?) gestured towards the supply wagons.

(The MC is meeting a pack of demons for the first time. She's not sure how to tell the two genders apart.)


3 Answers 3


Behold! The Mighty Ellipses!

The demon...she? he?...gestured towards the supply wagons.

Ultimately, it's a matter of personal style. Dashes, parentheses, ellipses are all correct.

Part of the reason I prefer ellipses here is, as Amadeus points out, the gender ponderings aren't really an interruption. It's an aside. The narrator's mind is wandering. Ellipses are great for that as they tend to indicate a pause in addition to a change of course.

Dashes also work great for asides, but don't indicate the same level of pause. Note: use a full sized dash (aka a double or em dash) and not a hyphen. Hyphens have other purposes.

Parentheses are okay, especially since you have the question marks to make it clear, but wouldn't be the choice that helps the reader with the flow and rhythm of the sentence.

  • 1
    One disadvantage of ellipses is that they're not usually understood as coming in matched pairs, unlike dashes or (most obviously) parentheses. Also, ellipses look like pauses, rather than changes of clause/tone/speaker.
    – gidds
    Apr 12, 2019 at 8:52
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    I don't think I've ever seen an em-dash referred to as a "double" dash, though I have seen hyphen pairs used where the limitations of the medium don't allow for a proper em-dash. To me, it would certainly look wrong to see a pair of hyphens in place of an em-dash in a printed book. One note, let's not forget about the em-dash's smaller cousin the en-dash, which fits right in the middle between the em-dash and the hyphen.
    – user
    Apr 12, 2019 at 9:12
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    Ellipses here imply two pauses, which feels wrong for the flow of the sentence; the interjection is intended as an interruption to the stream of thought, which ought not require a pause. Apr 12, 2019 at 9:14
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    I'm surprised this has so many upvotes, as I've always seen ellipses used this way as somewhat childish, certainly not something I'd use in any kind of writing I intend to publish. But there's no accounting for taste, I suppose.
    – user91988
    Apr 12, 2019 at 14:08
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    @only_pro (mumble, mumble) Where'd that roll eyes emoji go? Apr 12, 2019 at 14:10

I use a double-dash, and specifically a double-dash (not an em dash), on both sides of the interruption.

The demon -- he? she? -- gestured toward the supply wagons.

Although in your example, the interruption doesn't make sense; it would not make sense to say "The demon she gestured toward the supply wagons."

  • 5
    1) A "double-dash" (two hyphens in a row, as you have typed) is an em-dash for a keyboard which cannot produce one. There isn't a separate mark of punctuation called a double-dash which has a different meaning or usage. 2) The interrupter showing confusion over gender would replace "She gestured." It's not meant to be in addition to what's there. The narrator doesn't know if the demon is a he or she, and so is confused about what pronoun to use. Apr 12, 2019 at 10:56

Depends, is this the first time the character... he? ... she? ... has debated on the gender of this demon? Then an ellipses could indicate that he/she has only just had the thought and it gave them pause. Honestly, you might want to think of it structurally instead. Putting it before the demon. It shows that your character is trying to use a pronoun and can't decide. It's a little weird to try and figure out a pronoun after already simply calling the creature "the demon"

He, or she?... The demon gestured towards the supply wagon.

I'm a little long winded in my writing so I would write it all out.

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