In this segment of Copyediting with Keli I’m discussing how to punctuate two different cases of interrupted dialogue using the em dash.
The em dash is the long dash that used to be shown, back in pre-computer days, by typing two hyphens.
Those who use Word can make use of the program’s “auto correct” feature to replace an old-fashioned two-hyphen em dash with an actual em dash (—).
First let’s consider one character being interrupted by another. Here’s an example.
“You don’t get what I’m saying, Tiff, but if you’d just let me expl—”
“I get it all right. You never want to do what I want.”
To show the angry wife cutting off her husband, I used an em dash. When one comes at the end of a sentence like this, it’s followed by the close quotation mark. No period or other punctuation is used.
The second example involves the writer interrupting a line of dialogue to insert an action beat, tag, or other information.
“I’ve waited years for my first publishing contract, and now that it’s here”—her voice broke—“I hardly have words to describe my how I feel.”
To show the emotional state of the jubilant writer, I broke into the sentence with an action beat. The dialogue goes inside the quotation marks, and the em dashes setting off the break go outside of them. Note that an em dash used in this case butts up against the quotation mark on one side and the text on the other with no spaces in between.
When it comes to showing interrupted dialogue in either of the cases I’ve covered, think of a car screeching to a halt, leaving a long black trail of rubber on the asphalt. The em dash is the literary equivalent of a skid mark, showing an abrupt stop in the dialogue.
Now you know two uses of the helpful punctuation mark known as the em dash.