Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Punctuation Problems: Unfinished or Interrupted Dialog

When a person is speaking and doesn’t finish their thought, it happens in one of two ways. Either they trail off gradually, drawing out the last word and dropping in volume, or they cut off abruptly in mid-sentence or even mid-word.

Trailing off can indicate that the person has become lost in thought (and possibly forgotten to finish their sentence), that they have become distracted by something they see or hear, or that they are trying to suggest the unspoken final words without actually saying them. Whichever the circumstance, trailing off will always be indicated by ellipses at the end of the sentence:

     “Well, the experiment might work if we switched out the copper conductors . . .”

     “What in the world is going on . . .”

     “We do know someone who takes care of these sort of problems . . .”

Most writers use ellipses properly to indicate trailed-off dialog. However, I also often see them used to indicate speech that has cut off abruptly or been interrupted, which is incorrect. In those cases, the em dash is the appropriate punctuation:

     “I’ve figured it out!” Javid shouted. “The murderer is—”
     A gunshot cracked through the night, and Javid suddenly collapsed.

     “I am speaking,” Bernadette said, “even though I don’t—”
     “I am interrupting you, madam!”  Gabriel interrupted, “because I love the sound of my own—”
     “Well I shall simply interrupt you back, sir! For I must—”
     “Fool! My capacity for interrupting others far exceeds your own.”

Remember: ellipses indicate trailed-off dialog, and the em dash indicates abruptly cut-off dialog. No exceptions.

It's unfinished and incomplete, see?

Look, some elements of grammar and punctuation just don't lend themselves to perfect visual metaphors, all right? Trying to find a good picture for this post was hard. Thanks for reading, just move on now.

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