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Through reading some self-published novels, I have noticed some writers in their character dialogue put an exclamation mark or question mark before an ellipsis and sometimes after. However I am not well versed in the meaning behind them and would like to know how does it affect the speech when used and when should one use it so that I may learn to implement it when I start writing.

For example, I do not know the difference between "What?..." and "What...?" or "Right!..." and "Right...!"

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  • I wouldn't look to self-published works to pick up good practice - examine books from reputable publishers - they will normally have been corrected by good editors before you see them. Apr 2 at 18:50
  • I think any punctuation but ".,?" is "telling" (as opposed to showing). I.e. instead of doing "!" show with dialog and action that it is a piece of dialog with an exclamation mark. And instead of using ellipsis, show with action that there is a pause, e.g. Instead of "What?... I don't get it." Do: "What?" he said, scratching his head. "I don't get it."
    – Erk
    Apr 3 at 2:55

3 Answers 3

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An ellipsis in dialogue indicates an unexpected pause or silence or trailing off. (While dashes indicate a sudden break or interruption.)

Since "What?" and "What!" are complete utterances, it is hard to interpret "What?..." or "What!..." because we expect the punctuation to be the end of the sentence. I suppose it might be interpreted as a puzzled expression or desire to say something more, but the speaker is struggling to think of what to say. In that case, I'd write that in exposition. Gary looked like he wanted to say more, but struggled to find the words.

I don't think using "!..." is a shorthand that conveys that properly, it is just confusing and will break reader immersion.

"What...?" is a more reliable method, it indicates the questioner asked "What" and intended to elaborate but was at a loss for words; so there was a pause, then a questioning expression.

Similar to a character talking to their mother, they might say "What the... What in the world are you talking about, mom?"

The reader will guess the character caught himself before saying "What the fuck" to his mother.

I can't think of a good reason to use an expression ending punctuation followed by an ellipsis. "!..." or "?..." or "[period]...". Laziness, perhaps.

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  • As a native English speaker, I tend to think that ellipses in dialogue that follow a word with no indicating space indicate a place where the speaker slowed down to a stop while trying to figure out what to say next, which are different from a stifled utterance. In text which is written for a reader, as opposed to an actor, it may be good to include the initial sounds of a stifled utterance, but if an actor isn't supposed to produce such sounds audibly it may be better to indicate them via other means.
    – supercat
    Apr 1 at 21:58
  • An ellipsis can indicate ... a pause, if followed by more text. This question was not about that. Dashes traditionally indicate a more abrupt cutoff, when somebody is interrupted. This is explicit style in screenplays; and screenplays require the ellipsis or dashes are NOT preceded by a space... a little weird. In screenplays, ellipsis and dashes are explicit and different actor directions about how to say a line. They are not interchangeable.
    – Amadeus
    Apr 2 at 9:21
  • If an actor was going to say "I just got back from the bar", but caught themself before actually voicing "bar", paused for a moment, and then said "bookstore", writing that as "I just got back from the--bookstore" would seem a bit weird. As someone without acting training, I would think like "I just got back from the--...--bookstore" woud better reflect the presence of a dramatic "beat" between the word "the" and "bookstore", and phrasing which would be different from the normal use of an em dash?
    – supercat
    Apr 2 at 19:08
  • @supercat no, dashes always indicate an interrupt by somebody else, or a complete cessation. "I just got back from the... bookstore." Conveys exactly what you mean, an unexpected pause in speech. whereas, "I just got back from the--" without anybody interrupting them is also a sudden cessation. A logical line from somebody else is "From the what, Frank?" followed by Frank saying "No matter. I had just arrived."
    – Amadeus
    Apr 2 at 19:37
  • There is a bit of a difference between the speech mannerisms of someone who pauses becuase they can't formulate words as fast as they are speaking, versus someone was about to say something incriminating (e.g. because he had earlier claimed he wasn't at the bar) and catches himself. In the former case, the last vowel of "the" would be likely be extended and tail off, while in the latter case the last vowel would but cut short in preparation for the voice plosive "b" which was expected but not delivered.
    – supercat
    Apr 2 at 20:11
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There is no difference in meaning between them, it's just a matter of style. The examples mentioned on Wikipedia have the ? and ! after the ellipsis and that looks more natural to me as well (the ellipsis is part of the sentence, and punctuation ends it). But your mileage may vary...!

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    I would argue it is very much not a question of style and that putting ? or ! before an ellipsis is flat out wrong.
    – terdon
    Apr 2 at 15:24
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Don't mix Ellipsis and other Punctuation

Ellipsis simply imply a pause. It is stronger when we explain that pause.

"What?..." she said.
"What?" she said, voice dying off as horrible realization dawned.
"What?" she asked, her voice thick and slow with confusion.
"What?" she said, fury throttling whatever words would have followed.

The first example doesn't tell us anything except that there was a pause. The other examples imply a pause, but give us much more information about the scene - the emotions of the characters and their tone of voice.

Ellipsis would not add anything to those descriptions, so don't bother including them.

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    I don't see why one would exclude the other. In fact, now you're explaining a pause that's not shown. (Also, I think that last example deserves an exclamation mark. It's a very meek fury with just a question mark.)
    – towr
    Apr 1 at 20:26
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    In those examples, shouldn't ‘she’ be 𝘶𝘯capitalised, since it's not starting a new sentence?
    – gidds
    Apr 1 at 22:00
  • @towr - If we've explained the pause, then I don't think there's value in adding the ellipsis - it doesn't change the meaning or add nuance. I would remove it, because it is dead weight.
    – codeMonkey
    Apr 4 at 12:33
  • Well, it would improve my reading experience as reader if the ellipsis was there. So I wouldn't consider it dead weight. I'd rather actually see the pause, than after having read the dialog be told to reinterpret things as if it had been there. But one's mileage may vary depending on one's audience, and you can't please everyone.
    – towr
    Apr 4 at 12:54

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