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I know than an ellipsis can be used to show a broken sentence, the same way an em dash can be used. What I don't know is that if the two are interchangeable and it is writer preference or if different meaning is conveyed by their use.

Are ellipses and em dashes commutable?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

To my mind, there is a clear difference in pronunciation between the two: the em-dash is a clipped break, or a very abrupt shift, while the ellipsis is a distinct pause with a bit of elongation of the prior syllable.

If you take a sample sentence of

Wait... there may be something.

vs.

Wait—there may be something.

then for the first one, the word "wait" has a downward intonation, and a slightly drawn-out "ayy" sound; and there is a clear pause, possibly a full inhalation, before starting to say "there". It tends to have more of a connotation of thoughtfulness.

For the second one, "wait" is more emphasized, with no downward intonation, and is somewhat clipped; there is still a short pause before starting to say "there" but there is definitely no inhalation. It tends to have more of a connotation of urgency.

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According to Wikipedia, the em dash "demarcates a break of thought."

An ellipse is more commonly used to imply either a possible continuation or an unfinished thought.

I guess that, in certain cases, the two may be interchangeable.

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While I can certainly see your logic, I would say for that use (i.e. at the end of a broken sentence) ellipses are used for intentional pauses after a full, complete, unbroken sentence and dashes are used for unintentional breaks before a sentence is finished.

I would never-

vs.

I would never do that...

A hyphen is just an indication that someone was cut off before they were done talking.

To me, an ellipses is a pregnant pause. It says "There is some significance in what I said, so I'm following it with a pause for emphasis."

This makes me wonder why people put ellipses after every line in texts.

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