The Writer’s Toolbox – Trailing Away

Most students recognize ellipses when the triple dots are used to cover omitted text in a quotation. But what happens when ellipses are used outside an academic or nonfiction context and represent omitted verbal text, as in faltering or trailing-away speech in fiction dialogue? In this case they’re often referred to as suspension points, and they come with their own set of rules and considerations.

Faltering Speech
Suspension points are a common way to show that a speaker’s voice is trailing off or that they’re faltering as they speak. It’s less a matter of words that are left out as words that are unspoken or delayed.

Example A: John looked around the room and sighed. “I thought . . . I mean, I didn’t think it would turn out this way.”

Example B: “I wish . . .” He looked around the room and sighed.

Notice, though, the difference when a speaker is cut off or stops abruptly. In these cases, the break is indicated with an em dash:

Example C: “All right, class, next week?” The bell rang, and the rest of the assignment was lost in chair scraping and rising conversation.

Example D: “I wish I?”
“You’re always wishing!”

In both cases, the abrupt end in the dialogue line shows an interruption rather than dialogue that falters.

Punctuation Conflicts
The general use is simple enough; however, suspension points can get tricky when they conflict with the punctuation normally required in dialogue. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that where a comma would be required at the end of a set of suspension points, e.g. right before a dialogue tag, use the suspension points, the comma, and the quotation marks in that order:

Example E: “I don’t really know . . . I . . .,” she said.

Does that look odd? Though it’s correct, many writers find it a messy, even clunky look and avoid it by reworking the dialogue line:

Example E2 (rewritten): “I don’t really know,” she said. “I . . .”

Example E3 (rewritten): “I don’t really know . . .” She frowned. “I . . .”

Note that in Example E3, “frowned” is an action, not a true dialogue tag, so it’s a separate sentence and does not require a comma before the end of the quotation marks as in Example E.

Periods, though, are a different story. Although in some cases ellipses used to signify omissions may require a fourth period, don’t let your knowledge of ellipses fool you into adding the extra period here. Where faltering or trailing-off speech are concerned, there’s no need to include a fourth period before or after a set of suspension points?not even when the suspension points represent a pause at the end of a complete sentence.

Example F (incorrect): “I don’t really know. . . .I’m too tired to think.”

Example F (correct): “I don’t really know . . . I’m too tired to think.”

Next week we’ll look at a few other ways to use punctuation to convey a certain feel in dialogue. But before we move on from suspension points, a final note on spacing: Be aware that if your style guide prefers suspension points conveyed by spaced dots (. . .) rather than the single-character triple-dot glyph that comes with Word (?), you may need to substitute nonbreaking for regular spaces to avoid the suspension points breaking over a line.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.