Craft, Punctuation, Tips, Writing

How do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

A particular use of punctuation jumped out at me as I read a recently published book.

In general, I observe punctuation rules, so I’d like to know if the one used in this book follows an old rule, a new rule, or a house style. I question whether it’s a house style though–unless those change depending on the author—because I have books published by the same house in which this particular style is not used.

EM DASH — This author, as many of us do, used an em dash to indicate interrupted speech. But what struck me was a difference in the punctuation used after that dash. For instance, I would write such a sentence this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

But if those lines appeared in this book, the first would have been punctuated this way:

“I couldn’t possibly let you—.”

“Let me? Let me!” His outrage jerked him to his feet. “Since when do I require your permission?”

You’ll notice the period after the em dash. I’ve since pulled novels off my shelves searching for sentences with interrupted speech. I haven’t found one yet that duplicates this author/editor’s construction.

Am I behind the times or have I, and countless other authors, been doing it wrong all along?

Your turn: Please tell me, how do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?

(See my next post on using punctuation with the terminal ellipsis.)


57 thoughts on “How do you punctuate after a terminal em dash?”

  1. This issue has been driving me crazy of late as I’m writing a novel. Adding a period after a dash seems to be contradictory at the end of a quote; but, in the middle, it seems necessary to show both ellipsis and potential end of the statement. Then again, if it is, in fact, necessary mid-way, then maybe–

    Here’s a sample: “I can’t tell you what I’ve been through. These last few nights– It’s not that I don’t love you . . . (quote continues).

    Or maybe I’m bringing up a second issue: whether to space after the dash in this case (maybe remove it?). Any suggestions in either case?

    PS The reason I didn’t want to use an ellipsis is due to the speaker’s emotional state. An ellipsis seems too tame.


    1. Hello, Claudia, thank you for commenting. It appears to me you’re indicating that the speaker interrupts himself, and if that’s the case, I’m sorry to say I have no answer to your question because I’ve not written a sentence exactly that way. However, I do something similiar with an action. Here are two examples:
      “Why didn’t you—” His eyes widen. “Oh.”
      “You”—he smiles as he pretends to strangle me—“have gone completely mental.”

      You could try something like that. But if you find an answer to how to properly punctuate the sentence as you have it, I hope you’ll come back and share it with me because I’d really like to know. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Linda,

    Some input from Univ. of North Carolina’s Writing Center:

    “In written dialogue, if a speaker suddenly or abruptly stops speaking, hesitates in speech, or is cut off by another speaker, a dash can indicate the pause or interruption.

    Example: “I—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” denied the politician.
    Example: Mimi began to explain herself, saying, “I was thinking—“ “I don’t care what you were thinking,” Rodolpho interrupted.

    These samples suggest no additional punctuation after the dash and no spacing if the speaker interrupts herself. (The second ex. is odd, isn’t it? The site didn’t create a new paragraph for Rodolpho.)


  3. Thank you for returning to share what you found out, Claudia. Now, that I see their first example, I realize I have written dialogue that way. 🙂 But yes, it is odd that they didn’t start a new paragraph in the second example. It must have been a typo.

    BTW, to me, using the tag “interrupted” is redundant because Rodolpho’s interruption is made obvious by the use of the em dash.


  4. I hate to bring up an old post, but I will have to disagree with everyone. I have studied syntax for a while now, and I have found that a lot of things are convention, and a lot are logic. But, in cases like these, there is a difference. LOGICALLY, an em dash should have an end punctuation after it. For example, we would use another punctuation with it if it were needed, correct?
    “Do you want—?” she asked. Question marks falls into the same class as exclammation marks and full stops; therefore, to be logically consistent, a period would be need. If we used the whole “Well, em dashes mean that the sentence was cut off and over with …”, argument then that means we shouldn’t use a period in that case also, correct? For example, if someone were to just reply to someone with a single word.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Allex. I’m not sure if we’re in disagreement. As many other contemporary fiction writers do, I use an em dash without other punctuation in two ways. Primarily I use it to indicate one person’s speech being cut off by another person interrupting, but occasionally I use it to show a person cutting off their own sentence, usually because of an abrupt change of thought.


  5. I am formatting my deceased mother’s books and see she has used the em dash 100s of times but with punctuation, i.e

    “Glynis—.” He dismounted, and looking at her he seemed curiously unsure of himself.
    “My lord—.” and her voice was shy.
    He tried to—.” but she could say no more.

    I cannot find any examples anywhere on the web nor in my bookshelf where em dash is punctuated as my mother has done.

    Should I just delete the period or leave it as it is? My mother was old school and very English!

    Furthermore, should I capitalise the following sentence? In some places she has and others she hasn’t.

    Can anybody explain what is correct?


    1. Kate, first let me apologize for taking so long to respond. I simply forgot. Thank you for your questions, and I applaud you honoring your mother by formatting her work.

      I, too, have never seen punctuation like your mother used, not only in the use of the em dash, but in how she continued the sentence afterward. In the first sentence it appears she was indicating that the speaker was interrupted or stopped himself from finishing the sentences, so in my opinion, without the period following the em dash, that example would be correctly written.

      But in the second example, I would suggest: “My lord,” she said, her voice shy.

      And in the third example, I’m confused because you used an end quote mark but no opening quote mark. If it’s supposed to be spoken, then I would suggest: “He tried to—” She looked away, unable to say more. Or some similar action. In fact, since she stopped speaking, you don’t even need to say that she could say no more because the em dash makes that obvious, so you could just emphasize it with an action.


      1. Thanks Linda for your reply.

        I have omitted all the periods, commas etc., after the em dashes.

        Sorry about the confusion in the third example. It was me that forgot to put the quote mark…

        Another problem I had is that the em dashes do not join to the quote marks so if an em dash with quote mark is the last word at the end of the line, the quote mark could then drop off onto the next line becoming orphaned from the em dash. Very frustrating! To get around this, I decided to delete all the em dashes with quote marks from longer sentences to avoid this problem.

        And not to mention all the differences between en dashes, em dashes, and US style vs UK style, leaving a space etc. My head is spinning.

        Hats off to you writers!


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