In Search of a 4-Dot Ellipsis

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Vic Shane writes:

…my editor told me there is a four-dot ellipsis that is not the same thing as the three-dot version. When I went to Journalism school (32 years ago), we only had the three-dot variety, as far as I know. The extra dot came from somewhere and I’d like to get to the bottom of it. I won’t rest until I know why that dot is floating around in the ethers looking for a sentence!

Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as a 4-dot ellipsis. Omission of material in a quotation is indicated by three dots. When a fourth dot appears, it indicates that the omitted material included at least one sentence.

The Chicago Manual of Style describes the use of the ellipsis at great length, referring to the “three dot, four dot, and rigorous” methods (11.51 ff).

Spaces or no spaces?
Not all style guides agree as to whether or not the dots in the ellipsis should have spaces between them.

Chicago Manual of Style

An ellipsis—the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage—is indicated by ellipsis points (or dots), not by asterisks. Ellipsis points are three spaced periods (. . .), sometimes preceded or followed by other punctuation. They must always appear together on the same line, but any preceding punctuation may appear at the end of the line above (see also 11.64).

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers

For an ellipsis within a sentence, use three periods with a space before each and a space after the last ( . . . ).

Merriam-Webster distinguishes between “ellipsis marks [ … ]” and “suspension points
[ . . . ].”

According to the Wikipedia article on ellipsis,

In legal writing in the United States, Rule 5.3 in the Bluebook citation guide governs the use of ellipses and requires a space before the first dot and between the two subsequent dots. If an ellipsis ends the sentence, then there are three dots, each separated by a space, followed by the final punctuation.

AP style, on the other hand, leaves out the spaces ( … ).

Ellipsis and unfinished thought
When a speaker trails off, leaving a sentence unfinished, three dots are used:

“I never meant . . .”

When a quotation ends with an ellipsis

CMS

When three [dots] are used, space occurs both before the first dot and after the final dot. When four are used, the first dot is a true period—that is, there is no space between it and the preceding word.

MLA

When the ellipsis coincides with the end of your sentence, use three periods with a space before each following a sentence period–that is, four periods, with no space before the first or after the last.

Illustration
Here is an illustration of the use of ellipsis points to indicate 1) omission of words in a sentence; 2) omission of an entire sentence, and 3) ending the quotation with an ellipsis.

Original Passage

One further habit which was somewhat weakened, although by no means broken, was that of combining native words into self-interpreting compounds. The extent to which words like bookhouse or boatswain entered into Old English has been pointed out above. The practice was not abandoned in Middle English but in many cases where a new word could have been easily formed on the native model, a ready-made French word was borrowed instead. –Baugh, A History of the English Language (221).

Abridgment
“One further habit which was somewhat weakened . . . was that of combining words into self-interpreting compounds. . . . The practice was not abandoned. . . .”

The web abounds with discussions of the ellipsis. Here are some links.

The Elusive Ellipsis (DWT)

Kent Law writing guidelines

Wikipedia article

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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22 Responses to “In Search of a 4-Dot Ellipsis”

  • Dan

    I fundamentally disagree with the premise of putting spaces in between the dots of an ellipsis. The ellipsis is a symbol and character in its own right. So rules for punctuation within are ridiculous, no?

  • Sandy Harmon

    Your final example states to add a space between the elipsis and a stop period, yet shows just the opposite. Which is right?

  • Deborah H

    I agree with Dan. I don’t know how or when the practice of putting spaces between the dots began, but I was taught in typing class (1966) to put one space before … and one space after.

    I have have (jokingly) complained that mystery writers did it . . . to increase the sense of . . . surprise, instead of using the ellipsis indicate deleted material.

    Maybe not using spaces within the ellipsis came from newspaper English, where space equals wasted money.

  • PreciseEdit

    Here’s one non-technical reason why we use the extra spaces. Many word processors will convert three periods to an ellipsis by squeezing them together. The extra spaces prevent this from happening. When typing on a typewriter (in 1966), this did not happen.

    Here’s another. The spaced dots of the ellipsis look better on the page than squeezed-together dots that have a space on either side.

  • Grace S.

    Dan and Deborah, an ellipsis is by definition “3 spaced periods;” therefore, a space is added before and after the ellipsis, and the spaces within occur as part of the mark itself.

    It DOES look better on the page to have the dots spaced rather than squeezed together; however, electronic “typing” allows the typist to make all 3 dots with one keystroke, and does not space them. In proofreading commercial work, I have found that this can lead to some odd-looking lines of print. Fortunately, my colleagues who actually do the manipulation of electronic files are usually able to “fix” ellipses to look all right (don’t ask me what the keyboard commands are).

  • Dick

    When I was an editor of a Law Review back in my student days, things like the diference between a three-dot and a four-dot ellipsis were critical to us.

    As you’ve said, the difference is the placement in the sentence. Three dots shows that something was deleted. If the sentence ends at that point, there still needs to be a period.

    (In the Law Review style books, we did not have a space bnetween the three dots and the final period. Perhaps they do now.)

  • Peter

    I fundamentally disagree with the premise of putting spaces in between the dots of an ellipsis. The ellipsis is a symbol and character in its own right. So rules for punctuation within are ridiculous, no?

    Yes. Especially when there’s an ellipsis character available (“…”), so there are no “.”s at all. And putting a space between the ellipsis and the period at the end of a sentence screws up the spacing (“… .” vs. “….”)

    If you were using a typewriter (a real one, from the early cretaceous period, that just hammers out what you type, with no intelligence at all(!)), you’d want to space the dots, and then you obviously want a space between the ellipsis and the period as well—but people don’t live in caves nowadays, either.

  • Miriam

    Chicago Manual of Style speaks of the “three and four dot method” to describe the practice of using the period plus an ellipsis at the end of a full sentence and just the ellipsis in the middle of a sentence, which may have led to the “four-dot ellipsis” confusion.

    Also, while I like the spaces within the ellipsis, there should not be a space before the period itself in the four-dot manifestation, as there is in your post.

  • Carlisle

    Nice post, Miriam. I agree: CMS is clear that there is no space between the end of the sentence and the period, thereby rendering “Her voice trailed off . . . . ” as “Her voice trailed off. . . . ” (no space between “off” and the first dot, which is the sentence’s full stop).

  • Maeve

    Thanks for all the comments. They’ve persuaded me that the original version of this post was murky and inaccurate. Since I don’t want anything like that hanging about in the Archives, I’ve revised it.

  • Rod

    There is no such a thing as a …. four dot ellipsis

  • Hank Roberts

    Arguments over right and wrong can go on forever. The key is to pick one style manual, and follow it so the meaning of the symbols used is understood — for the writer, editor, copy editor, fact checker, typist, typesetter, and reader.

    I go by CMS (now 16th ed.) if it’s my choice. It isn’t always my choice.

    CMS: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/search.epl?q=ellipsis&site=cms16dev&search_edition=16

    Briefly: an ellipsis is something left out; ellipsis points are the three dots showing where an ellipsis occurred; they may be horizontal (text) or vertical (some math).

    I take great care about the spaces, whether before or after the ellipsis points, so it’s clear if and where a sentence ended.

    There is not a right and wrong. What’s right is agreeing on and following rules you _choose_ to work under in cooperative writing and publishing, from publicly available and understood rules that readers can find and understand so they can work back to find and understand the original in context without being misled.

  • Joyce Hoffman

    I agree with Hank. What’s working for you and your job, and those with whom you communicate, should remain sacrosanct.

    However, in a corporate environment, you have to be flexible in order to meet the standards of the client. One of the questions you should ask a new client is, what guidelines are you following, in order to “be on the same page.”

  • Sarah

    Okay. So if you’re not ending a sentence or deleting something, and you’re just using it as a trail off…or a bridgeway to a new idea…is it always three dots? Or is it also grammatically correct to put four?

  • Rob @ Forkoff

    This seems to be another case of Americans taking something which is globally recognised and trying too hard to it their own.

    There are no spaces in an ellipsis… period!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellipsis

  • E

    I’ll say this first. To Maeve who wrote the original article, and Rob who used Wikipedia as a definitive source, never ever quote Wikipedia as a source. Never! They are not considered a reputable source. Wiki sites (including Wikipedia) are based on user opinions and unconfirmed research and are therefore not reliable unless the entry specifically points back to a legitimate source. Sites like suite101 for example will not accept “user-generated content sites (e.g., eHow, Associated Content, About.com), Wikipedia, and personal websites are not accepted citation material.” Rob, if you look closely at your own source of Wikipedia (which is not considered reputable) they also show an example of spaced ellipses.

    In the latest addition of the CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) examples of ellipsis look as follows:

    “The spirit of our American radicalism is destructive and aimless. . . . On the other side, the conservative party . . . is timid, and merely defensive of property. . . . It does not build, write, nor cherish the arts, nor foster religion, nor establish schools.”

    On the page this is cited from, the last 3 dots in the ellipsis are on a new line, but that’s due to typing layout most likely.

    I don’t want to cite everything since it will be too lengthy, but what it amounts to is that the the first dot is a period not an ellipsis. The ellipses are used after the period to indicate the omission of material immediately following a period. In other words, technically there is no such thing as a 4 point ellipsis, because it’s really a period followed by an ellipsis (set of 3 dots).

    Other ellipses appear as follows:
    . . .
    , . . .
    . . . ?
    . . . :

    Only the first one is actually ellipsis. Next is a comma followed by ellipsis, ellipsis followed by a question mark, and ellipsis followed by a colon. Just as none of these are considered different types of ellipsis, so to a period followed ellipsis is in reality punctuation + ellipses, not 4-point ellipsis.

    I’m not going to go into brackets surrounding ellipsis [. . .] as I haven’t researched it and don’t know how or when it would be used.

    So what’s the final answer concerning spaced ellipsis . . . vs non-spaced ellipses …?

    They’re both right . . . and both wrong. Some sources insist and spaces some don’t. In the end it depends on the publication and preference. Obviously if you’re publishing work, you’ll have to follow whatever the particular publication wants. If where you’re writing it doesn’t have a preference or doesn’t demand which one, go with whatever you prefer. I personally prefer spaced, but until all the legitimate sources agree, either is fine.

  • Tim Riggs

    Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style gives this definition for an ellipsis.

    ‘The sign of elision and of rhetorical pause: three dots.’

    As far as spacing goes, he suggests that an ellipsis be constructed by three consecutive baseline dots, either flush together or separated by a thin space (not at option in most word processors or on typewriters).

    ‘Thick spaces (M/3) are prescribed by the Chicago Manual of Style, but these are another Victorian eccentricity. In most contexts, the Chicago ellipsis is much too wide.’

    A four dot ellipsis is an ellipsis with a period, unless you are trying to be clever. More likely, you’ll look like you don’t know what you’re doing.

  • paul

    The Apple Mac, which led the way for the desktop publishing revolution has had an ellipsis character almost since the beginning. As with professional typesetting programs it is an actual typographic character, not a bunch of periods with spaces.

    The problem with periods and spaces, just as in the antiquated period-plus-two-spaces at the end of a sentence is that it throws off word processing and typesetting software.

    A proper word processor or typesetting program has strict rules about breaking words and lines. Three dots together will never break whereas three dots with spaces are seen as three very short words with a space following. One could end up at he end of one line and the other two ‘words’ on the next line. An unnecessary nightmare for proof readers and editors An ellipsis character or three dots together would never break improperly.

  • Dermot McCabe

    I think it makes sense to treat the ellipses like a three letter word. Put a space before and after if it occurs mid-sentence and do not put spaces between the dots.
    When it occurs at the the end of a sentence, I don’t put a closing full stop because I feel it is better to suggest that the ellipses indicates an unexpressed continuation of a thought. The full stop suggests closure.

  • Chris

    There is actually a lengthy precedence of the use of an ellipsis with 4 dots as a stylistic element. I know for a fact that I have seen it used by Chekhov, and later, Nabokov, and then also by Edna St. Vincent Millay, though I would have to root through my library and all the marginalia to find specific instances.

    From a personal artistic standpoint, I love it, and I use it as a way to thrust an interpretive decision on to the reader. Is it a period and an ellipsis or an ellipsis and a period? What is going unsaid and where is it not being said? A sort of glass half-full or half-empty situation.

    But hey, that’s just my style.

  • Gareth

    My girl is an author, or writer, or as she’d prefer a ‘hack’, or scirbbler. With inherited authority from growing up with parents who’re publishers, she is confident in her authority of this subject (right or wrong).

    Scientist myself, but the way she described the distinction made some intuitive sense:

    “I’m going to the shop…”
    Unfinished but there was more to follow. The thought/intent was incomplete, perhaps interrupted by circumstances, or a third party, or doubt, or whatever. Often followed by more dialogue and so might denote a pause.

    “It’s complicated….”
    Distinct and different from a full stop termination. Opens to more that could be said, but won’t be. Final though, because nothing more would have ever been said by the character here. Like a painting whose lines or subjects draw your attention to something off canvas. Hence, a three point ellipsis followed by a full stop.

    Paraphrasing massively, and lord help me if she ever catches me paraphrasing her.

    All good. You probably get the idea.

  • Rob Lamberti

    It was always three dots, even at the end of a sentence. It was always taught that the last dot of the triple dots had two functions, part of the ellipses and the period at the end of the sentence. And then comes along Chicago style, the home of trickle-down economics…

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