Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grammar-licious: Making Grammar Fun - May

As an editor, I see a lot of issues with ellipsis and em-dash usage, so I thought it would be a good topic to touch upon. The ellipsis is used to indicate a pause in speech or missing text. The em-dash is used to indicate an interruption in speech or to emphasize a phrase.

An ellipsis is used to show missing text within quoted material, or a pause within a character’s dialogue. The ellipsis is always three dots: “…”. Always three, not two, four, five; three. Style guidelines vary. Some people prefer an ending period if the ellipsis is at the end of a sentence, other guidelines are satisfied with no final period.

A little history of the em-dash: in the day of the typewriter, an em-dash was represented by double hyphens amounting to the width of a capital “M” from the keyboard. With computers, you can format or insert an em-dash easily and it’s used to indicate an interruption within dialogue, or to emphasize a certain phrase. There is never a space before or after an em-dash.

Examples are always helpful, so here there come.

(1) Ellipsis and em-dash in dialogue:
“Peter, please, what I meant was…”
“What? What did you mean?”

Compare the above to this:
“Peter, please, what I meant was—”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. It’s too late.”

Can you see how the first example is the first speaker trailing off and the second example has the first speaker being cut off?

(2) Ellipsis and em-dash as pauses/breaks:
There it was again…that subtle, but creepy scratching.
There it was again—that loud, terrifying scratching.

(3) Ellipses are great for slowing the reader down within narrative: “They gazed innocently into each other’s eyes until hesitantly…gently…they shared their first kiss.”

Within documentation, ellipses are handy for shortening long text. Use the ellipsis to show missing words, whether only a few, or several, even a few sentences. For instance, you find parts of the Gettysburg Address handy for making a point. Use an ellipsis to remove words or phrases you don’t want the reader to focus on.

Special Note #1: A colon can sometimes be used instead of an em-dash. A colon announces to the reader that something special is coming along. The em-dash does the same, but is more dramatic.

Special Note #2: A hyphen can not be used in place of an em-dash. A hyphen has its own special use to be talked about in a later column.

This month’s recommended grammar book is: The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need by Susan Thurman and Larry Shea.

I like finding ways to remember the ‘rules’ and hope you can find something helpful. It’s my hope the monthly grammar techniques and usage examples will make grammar a lot less frightening and potentially enjoyable (can you imagine?) for you.

If you have grammar topics you’d like to see covered, please leave a comment or email me!

(originally published in The TWC Spotlight for May, 2009)

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