Ellipses and em-Dashes and Parentheses, Oh My!


Way back when I held the title of mere copyeditor instead of Chief Executive Editor… I worked with a lot of ellipses.

What’s an ellipses, and who cares?

That would be the string of three dots I used in the first sentence above. Technically viewed as a sign of omission – as in, “Here’s a quote by somebody… with some irrelevant information in it that I removed” – writers often contradictorily use it as a sign of addition, as in, “I have some awesome information to share… and this ellipses is meant to whet your appetite before I spill the details.”

Honestly, this piece of punctuation can be effective either way. When used sparingly.

Then there are em-dashes, which I also used above. They’re the short lines that denote the sentence fragment “– as in, ‘Here’s a quote by somebody… with some irrelevant information in it that I removed’ –.”

Em-dashes are meant to establish an aside: something that’s relevant yet doesn’t flow entirely well with the sentence either logically or structurally. This could be an example of what you’re referencing, such as in the sentence above, or a list of who you’re referencing, such as in, “The boys – Darrell, Jordan and Jamal – went to the store.”

Of course, whether rightly or wrongly, people often use parentheses in the same way. I could get into a whole grammatical discussion about when to employ which, but who cares? Probably not you when you use punctuation all the time and see it all the time, and everyone largely seems to understand everyone else.

So, again, who cares?

If that’s your stance, then I’m not going to try to dissuade you. I actually largely agree with you there, just with one little clarification.

Whatever bit of punctuation you use, be careful how much you employ it per sentence, per paragraph and even per document. Because the more you use it, the more confusing and/or cheesy and/or ineffective it’s going to become.

Reconsider the following paragraph, just with one little twist:

Technically viewed as a sign of omission – as in, “Here’s a quote by somebody… with some irrelevant information in it that I removed – writers often contradictorily use it as a sign of addition – as in, “I have some awesome information to share… and this ellipses is meant to whet your appetite before I spill the details.”

Visually speaking, that admittedly long sentence looks like a double mess. Where does one intra-dash thought begin and the next one pick up? It’s much better the original way, where there were just two em-dashes and an additional comma.

(By the way, grammar Nazis, pipe down. I know you’re supposed to employ dashes in pairs.)

Now, that last sentence is a decent example of how to employ a set of parentheses. Once in a blog post. Twice at most. Any more than that, and your copy is going to read annoyingly, forcing followers to jump out of the copy and away from the main message more times than they’d prefer.

Finally, when it comes to ellipses… oh… my… word… but can they get old fast.

Yes, they can convey emotion. Yes, they can make readers pause. And yes, they can build up suspense. But too much written suspense starts to look pretty cheesy or tacky after too long… or not very long at all.

Sick of seeing ellipses yet? This is what I had to look at as a mere copyeditor… all… the… time… which cheapened my employer’s product.

So the next time you go throwing around punctuation willy-nilly, ask yourself, “Who cares?”

The answer is probably going to be, “Your readers.”

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