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In my writing, I’ve found that (in dialogue) I use the em dash to show a sudden break from dialogue, and I use an ellipsis for trailing off, often coupled with a pause.

I’ve run into the situation where a character suddenly stops talking and pauses for a while. It feels clunky to interrupt the dialogue, so I arrived at using an ellipsis after an em dash.

So the question here is, has this been done before? While I feel such punctuation would be easily understood, I want to know how unfamiliar or unusual it would be for a reader. If possible, examples would be appreciated.

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    I've seen dialogue just ending with an em dash, but not em dash followed by ellipsis. Or do you mean the dialogue continues again after the ellipsis? Like "blah blah — ... blah blah" ?
    – user54131
    Commented Feb 10, 2022 at 6:11

2 Answers 2

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Both an "—" and a "..." in a dialogue may indicate a pause. The first is an abrupt interruption, the latter simply a pause, perhaps one indicating that the character is thinking about the next word.

Unlike music, in which the duration of pauses is well coded in the symbols, these dialogue pauses have a variable duration determined by the reader, possibly affected by the writer through additional descriptors, e.g. 'she paused for a while'.

Placing them together does not make the pause longer. It can instead confuse the reader as to the reason of the pause: is it an abrupt interruption, or is the character taking a moment to think about the next word?

"As I was sa— ... what happened here?"

is the same as

"As I was sa— what happened here?"

and it is different from

"As I was saying ... what happened here?"

the latter is similar, in my opinion, to

"As I was saying: what happened here?"

You may achieve a better result by adding a descriptor to space the two parts of the speech.

"As I was sa—" her jaw dropped "what happened here?"

or

"As I was sa—" she halted and sighed "what happened here?"

The statistics:

A google search of wikisource.org does not seem to return anything with em dash and ellipsis.

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It has been done before. However, that is not necessarily a recommendation to also do it!

I've scanned a collection of 14.826 free English fiction books from Smashwords, and 8 of them contain this construction. Most of them seem to be from the same author (and two cases from the same book in different versions).

An example from "Blazed Trilogy"

“I’m not— ... I didn’t—” Stuck for words, Blaze turned a glare on Caroline and exhaled sharply. “The dress, Caroline. Let her try it on.”

This specific usage makes sense to me, since the character is stumbling on what to say, twice, with a pause in between.

I've also found the pattern a couple of times in 48.868 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg, but the usage there is a bit different.

For example in "The Mystery of the Iron Box" there is someone on the phone

He waited an instant and then he was saying, “Sintelli?... Lausch here. Tony, I’ve got a question for you—three questions, in fact. I’ve got what appears to be an old Italian box— ... What?... No, a small box. Iron, with a lead lining. I want to know if it’s old, if it’s valuable, and if it might have been stolen recently from some European collection—public or private.... Yes, I think so.”

Here the em dash is the character being interrupted, and the ellipsis is the character waiting for what the person on the other side of the line has to say.

There are also cases of it being used in letters, like this example from "the life of James Buchanon":

My Dear James:— ... A letter from William came to hand on the 11th of June, in which he expressed considerable anxiety to return home, [..]

Given that it only occurs (in any usage) in only a few dozen books among over 63 thousand, I think it's fair to say it's an unusual pattern of punctuation.

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