Poetry Punctuation – the dash vs the ellipsis marks

Since we’re on the subject of poetry punctuation, I’m reminded of another punctuation question earlier this week. This time it was one of our Poetry Society of Tennessee’s Northeastern branch (PST-NE) members Marlene Simpson.

Ben wasn’t available on that fateful day. Marlene had a contest deadline to beat and wanted to send the poem out that day. So she took a chance on my advice. Currently, Marlene doesn’t have internet access, so she asked me over the phone to critique her poem and decide whether the dash or ellipses belonged. That was a stretch for me, because I’m a visual learner. I don’t do as well audio. Marlene was very patient and read over the lines to me several times.

I also consulted my Gregg Reference Manual (Ninth Edition) and found a few clarifications. I shared them with Marlene and now share them with you.

Section 291 – Ellipsis marks are three spaced periods, with one space before and after each period.

a. As a general rule, do not use ellipsis marks in place of a period at the end of a sentence, However, ellipsis marks may be used to indicate that a sentence trails off before the end. The three spaced periods create an effect of uncertainty or suggest an abrupt suspension of thought. (No terminal punctuation is used with ellipsis marks in this kind of construction.) Emphasis added as it relates to Marlene’s poem interpretation. 

b. ellipsis marks are often used in advertising to display individual items or to connect a series of loosely related phrases.

Where can you match these services?

. . . Free ticket delivery

. . . flight insurance

. . . On-time departures

The Inn at the End of the Road . . . where you may enjoy the epicure’s choicest offerings . . . by reservation only . . . closed Tuesdays.

Section 207 Dash – To Indicate an Abrupt Break or an Afterthought [Emphasis added as it relates to Marlene’s poem. I tried to make these all em dashes, but didn’t know how in WordPress. Maybe somebody can tell me.]

Use a dash to show an abrupt break in thought or to separate an afterthought from the main part of a sentence. When a sentence breaks off after a dash, leave one or two spaces before the next sentence. (Or in the case of poetry – continue on a new line?)

Examples:   I wish you would-   Is there any point in telling you what I wish for you?

   We offer the best service in town-and the fastest!

   According to Bertrand Russel, “Many people would sooner die than

think-and usually do.”

Well, Marlene and I worked on the critique of her poem. I hope I steered her in the right direction. Good luck in winning your contest, Marlene. We decided the ellipsis is softer than the dash, because the dash emphasizes a strong break in thought.

Many times, punctuation in poetry is used to help the cold reader know how to emphasize the content or length of pause, etc.

Maybe Ben Dugger will comment further on this when he gets a chance.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Rose Klix

My website is http://www.RoseKlix.com


5 thoughts on “Poetry Punctuation – the dash vs the ellipsis marks

  1. I learned the lesson about ellipsis the hard way. I was using dashes and my editor told me no and then I went to three periods without spaces which was also wrong. Now, I have it down but I try to use ellipsis as sparingly as possible.
    Now, I have to work on too many ly words at the end of a speech. I don’t know why I feel that I should explain how a speaker is feeling while he/she is talking.


  2. You learn the hard way too? Why is it this wasn’t drummed into us in school? Oh, well, maybe we weren’t paying attention. Take care.
    -ly words are also challenging aren’t they? Did you read Chris Roerden’s “Don’t Sabotage Your Submission – Save your manuscript from turning up D.O.A.” ? She has a lot of tips for editing.


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