All About Ellipses

By Mark Nichol

Three dots. Dot, dot, dot. What could be simpler? Then why do those dots make so many writers dotty? The rules for use of ellipses are not as simple as they seem. But they are manageable.

First, a definition: An ellipsis (from the Greek word elleipsis — also the source of ellipse, meaning “an oval” — is an elision of words that can be implied to mentally complete a statement; it can also mean “a sudden change of subject.” But the meaning we seek is another one, the grammatically mechanical one: Ellipsis and its plural form, ellipses, also refer to the punctuation marks signaling elision. (That word, from the Latin term elidere, means “omission.”)

Despite the second meaning of ellipsis mentioned above — “a sudden change of subject” — ellipses are not recommended for this function. Ellipses signal, in addition to elision, a faltering or trailing off (in which case they are sometimes called suspension points), but to prepare the reader for an abrupt break or interruption in thought, use an em dash.

The primary function of an ellipsis is to omit one or more inconsequential words from a quotation, as in this version of a sentence from above: “Despite the second meaning of ellipsis mentioned above, . . . ellipses are not recommended for this function.” (Note that punctuation, like the comma in this example, may be retained or introduced to aid comprehension.) Each dot is preceded and followed by a letter space. Word-processing programs have a single-character ellipsis, but this character, or three dots with no letter spaces, looks cramped and ugly; use the period key.

Ellipses should not be introduced at the beginning or end of a quotation; however, if the source material includes ellipses in one or both locations, retain the characters. If an entire sentence is elided, four periods should be inserted between the framing sentences. The first, which immediately follows the last word of the preceding sentence, is the period ending that sentence. The other three, spaced as mentioned above, constitute the ellipsis. Note this example: “Three dots. . . . What could be simpler?”

If a final portion of a sentence is elided, follow the ellipsis with a period after a letter space. The same technique is applied in the case of a comma or a semicolon. This elision of the preceding sentence illustrates: “If a final portion of a sentence is elided, follow the ellipsis with a period . . . . The same technique is applied in the case of a comma or a semicolon.”

If an entire paragraph is elided, end the previous paragraph with an ellipsis following the period ending the final sentence; if, within a multiparagraph quotation, the beginning of a paragraph other than the first one is elided, begin the paragraph starting with the elision with an indented ellipsis.

The two four-dot examples above illustrate the only two cases in which more than three dots should appear in sequence; an ellipsis always consists of three dots, but it may be preceded or followed by a period. A sequence of four or more dots otherwise appearing together is considered an unprofessional-looking error and should be avoided by any serious writer.

An ellipsis may also be employed when a sentence is deliberately incomplete: “Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be . . .’ speech” (though this could also be rendered without ellipsis) or “If I were you . . . ,” when the missing words are not considered necessary to aid in communicating meaning.

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10 Responses to “All About Ellipses”

  • Dan

    It’s also worth noting that an ellipsis in typography is not three full stops, but is instead a symbol in itself: …

    ALT+0133 on the keyboard.

  • Harry Dewulf (densewords)

    Chicago Manual of Style is very sensible about ellipsis, much more so than common usage seems to be. Your summary is most helpful.

    As the previous commenter noted, in typography an ellipsis is usually written using the symbol … (alt+0133 on most keyboards) and is otherwise written using three unspaced dots. This distinguishes it from the mark ‘three dots’ which is written with three spaced dots, and which is commonly used to indicate long pauses in direct speech.

    I agree that in some typefaces it looks very small and mean; in those cases I usually use three dots but alter the pitch (space between letters) to something more satisfying, but still shorter than a space to avoid confusion with ‘three dots’.

  • KansasBard

    “Each dot is preceded and followed by a letter space. Word-processing programs have a single-character ellipsis, but this character, or three dots with no letter spaces, looks cramped and ugly; use the period key.”

    Good informative article, until this point. You dictate that the elipsis must be represented by three periods with spaces in between. That is a matter of your personal style, not definition. AP Style, for instance, calls for three periods with a single full space on either side of the elipsis.

    Likewise, AP Style has different requirements when dealing with replacing a complete sentence with an elipsis.

  • Deborah H

    For more than forty years, I have used the ellipsis without the internal letter spaces. Thus: “I can’t bear to think about what will happen if we lose … .”

    I wonder (because I can’t remember) if this usage stems from “journalism” punctuation instead of literary punctuation.

    But you have also thrown me a curve by using spaces before and after your long dashes, which I thought was incorrect. My assortment of style guides do call for the spaced out ellipsis, but reject using letter spaces before and after a dash.

    Which style guides do you use? What does the AP style guide say about ellipses?

  • Geosota

    I never use the spaces. By expanding the ellipsis, you are saying to the reader: “What I left out is actually important.”

  • Mark Nichol

    KansasBard:

    This post’s recommendations are based not on my personal preference, but on the recommendations of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style guide of record for most book and magazine publishers in the United States. I acknowledge that the Associated Press Stylebook and other style guides differ in their recommendations about punctuation (most notably, the presence or absence of a serial comma), but Chicago is the default authority for my posts on this site.

  • Mark Nichol

    Deborah H:

    See my response to your comment at this post.

  • Lena

    I always thought the comma before the ellipses was redundant!

    Thanks for the article.

  • Deborah H

    Dang. I’m a slow learner, Mark 🙂 We covered this ground once before.

    And I had a Chicago Manual of Style that I bought in 1980, on the advice of William Safire, I think. Not that I knew him personally. But a few years ago while culling my reference books, I let the Chicago Manuall go. I’ll look for a newer copy.

    Thanks for your hard work, Mark. I do appreciate it.

  • jF

    Another couple of points to throw in here—use of a proper ellipsis (the single character) is advantageous when editing. Finding/replacing an ellipsis character is quite a different beast than trying to find/replace three dots with spaces. Using a proper ellipsis greatly reduces the risk of incorrect spacing.

    Another consideration is repurposing of the text, particularly on the Web. An ellipsis can be converted to any number of “entities” to accommodate a particular character encoding with ease. Using periods can be iffy, especially when you take into consideration that HTML “collapses” multiple successive spaces by default (hence the need for the non-breaking space character). Going from a proper ellipsis to periods and spaces is easy enough, but going the other direction can become a headache.

    Side comment—a lot of AP rules should be taken with a grain of salt. Many were created to facilitate typesetting of newspapers back in the days when typesetting was performed by hand, character by character. ’Twas easier to squeeze text on that last line when you didn’t have to adhere to traditional style!

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