The Elusive Ellipsis

By Andi

The ellipsis seems to be one of the most alluring punctuation symbols, and I see it misused everywhere. From student papers to billboards to everyday e-mails and chat logs, the ellipsis is tossed in willy-nilly and often extends to four, five, or even six dots.

I have to tell you, an extended ellipsis is just a bunch of dots.

The ellipsis—three consecutive dots—serves some specific purposes in writing.

If used correctly, an ellipsis can be quite effective, if not, it can be downright confusing.

Some of the right ways to use an ellipsis include… (see that, it works!):

1. The intentional omission of words

All employers must honor the minimum wage requirement….

The original sentence read:

All employers must honor the minimum wage requirement or risk paying a fine.

2. A pause in speech

I think I just got an… interview!

3. An unfinished thought

Now, where on earth did I put that…?

4. A sentence that trails into silence

I thought you might say that….

Pay special attention to an ellipsis that ends a sentence. It is the only time you should include four dots since the final dot serves as the period at the end of the sentence.

Stay tuned for a post about the correct use of the ellipsis in quoted sentences.

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20 Responses to “The Elusive Ellipsis”

  • Daniel

    Good thing you clarified about the 4 dots. Many people get confused on that issue.

  • Gregory Pittman

    I have enjoyed reading this site for the past several days. You’ve provided some helpful tips so far and I look forward to many more.

    Help me clear up some confusion, because I’ve been using ellipses a little differently ever since high school and college teachers beat them into me. According to those instructors, ellipses aren’t used to begin or end a sentence with omitted words. In other words, just start where you’re quoting and stop where you stop. Ellipses are used to show omitted words only when they appear in the middle of a sentence. At least according to my writing instructors. Interestingly, the style manual we used in college indicates your way is correct, which probably means either is acceptable.

    And are you sure your use of the ellipsis in the sentence, “Some of the right ways to use an ellipsis include…” is correct? Rather than an ellipsis, shouldn’t that be a colon because you’re introducing a list?

    Lastly (I promise, and I know this is right), ellipses should have spaces between the periods. So, instead of (…) it should be (. . .).

    I promise I’m not trying to contrary. 🙂 I just want to make sure I’m using correct style and I have conflicting information.

  • Andi

    Hi, Gregory, and thanks for your comments!

    Like you, many of my writing teachers and professors through the years taught me not to use ellipses at the beginning or end of a sentence. And like you said, many style guides go against that, which also leads me to believe that either method is correct.

    As for using ellipses within quotations, I have a whole post coming up about that.

    And you’re correct again, when you point out my use of the ellipsis should probably be a colon. Since I was writing in such a conversational tone, I used the ellipsis as if I were letting my statement trail off. A bit of writing humor, albeit not terribly good humor.

    Thank you for pointing out the issue of spaces. I neglected to mention that because Microsoft Word (and most other word processors to my knowledge) do that step for the writer. Something I certainly take for granted.

    Thanks again for your interest in the site and your comments!

  • Daniel

    I am not sure about the space between the dots.

    “According to Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, the details of typesetting ellipses depend on the character and size of the font being set and the typographer’s preference. Bringhurst writes that a full space between each dot is “another Victorian eccentricity. In most contexts, the Chicago ellipsis is much too wide” — he recommends using flush dots, or thin-spaced dots (up to one-fifth of an em), or the prefabricated ellipsis character”

  • Britt Malka

    Thanks for this and the other articles about writing. I’m glad you went back to full RSS feed 🙂

    In Denmark you have to put a space before the ellipsis (det kan skrives sådan …), so I was glad to learn about the English rules.

  • Muhammad Hanif

    A/A

    It is very good attempt to aware about the difficult words of english and get comments from others on it. I am a new entry and on the learning stage. If, possible, a written hand book may deliver.

  • Roshawn

    Interesting…

    One question: must you put a space before the ellipsis (MS Word seems to do this for me)?

    Thanks for the info.

  • Mark

    On a mac the keyboard shortcut OPTION+; (i.e. hold down the “option” key while pressing the “;” key) produces an ellipsis with no spaces between each dot. I’m not sure what the keyboard combination is in Windows.

  • Mel Merzon

    Some additional ellipses usages:
    “I like ice cream. . . . ” The first dot is the period of the sentence; therefore no space precedes that dot. The ellipses then follow.

    “I like ice cream . . . ” This is not the end of the original sentence; therefore the ellipses follow with a preceding space.

  • hamza

    i am going to represent a grammar lesson about ellipsis but i do not know wht are the most important points that i have to speak about because the lesson must be short and valuable and i want to start it with a short story or a very understandable short poem in which we find ellipsis and end it with a very nice game which i can use without computer and to have the best mark .but i search for all these and i did not find any thing.can you help me

  • Chris

    I am confused as to how an ellipsis is used in a question. Your example: “Now, where on earth did I put that…?” seems fine, however I was reading a novel which used “?…”. I feel the sentence is completed with the question mark and therefore the ellipsis is placed incorrectly or rather outside the sentence. What’s happening here?

  • Vic

    This is very helpful: “Pay special attention to an ellipsis that ends a sentence. It is the only time you should include four dots since the final dot serves as the period at the end of the sentence.”

    It’s amazing that I never learned this ellipsis information in journalism school. It also amazes me that ….

  • jp

    The ellipsis is the most useful part of modern punctuation. Just keep it to three dots please…

  • Danny

    Does this look right…or do I have to capitalize what I put after the ellipsis?

  • Scott

    I had always thought there was supposed to be a space between each period.. . . This would allow the reader to understand about the idea and content. . . or not.

  • Trudi

    Now I’m totally confused:

    To dot … or to space and dot . . .

    My word processor recognizes … but when I use . . . it tells me I have typed something incorrectly.

    I have been a typist for over 40 years and have always used the three dots without a space. Now the practicum under grad student who is trying to teach me APA in my policy class tells me that I need to put spaces between the dots. I believe I was taught that in typing and in English class either way was correct, as long as I was consistent.

    H E L P.

    Which is correct for APA format in essay writing?

  • mand

    Just found this by searching on ‘ellipsis’, because someone just electronically snapped at me for saying I don’t put a space before one.

    To add to the discussion of spaces between the periods (which I am resisting calling full stops!), the Windows ellipsis character produced by Alt+0133 (find it in Character Map) appears to have less space than spaced periods, but a bit more than unspaced periods. Aagh, no, in the font on another comment form (replying to that snappish person) that was true, but in the font I’m seeing here, Alt+0133 gives an even narrower character than the unspaced three periods. Either way it seems Windows doesn’t think it needs spaces between the periods, but that doesn’t give any clue about spaces before and after.

    Alt+0133: …
    unspaced: …
    spaced: . . .

    Btw, I’ve always assumed the full stop, when you have that as well as the ellipsis, came after the ellipsis – at the *very* end of the sentence.

    Well, anyway. I’m off to return to the fray!

  • Erica

    okay, so if I am using an ellipsis to indicate someone trailing of at the end of a sentence, does the period come at the end of the sentence, followed by the ellipsis or does it come after the ellipsis? The instructions here seem to suggest the latter, but I’ve seen things on other sites that suggest the opposite.

    I’ve also been told (by someone on my writing site) that a trailing off ellipsis should just be three dots with no periods, and you only punctuate at the end of an ellipsis if it is a ? or !

    So it it:

    “So, I am wondering. …”
    “So, I am wondering… .”
    “So, I am wondering…”
    Oh, and for the last two options, should there be a space before the ellipsis (if either of those is correct)?

  • Josephus

    I am amazed at the confusion surrounding the use of the ellipses… It is ultimately simple, but many people are over-complicating this issue. As previously mentioned: a single ellipses (…) is composed of 3 dots. A single ellipses stands alone when ending a declaration, for example: “Consider this clause…” Erica’s latter supposition is correct. She states: “[Y]ou only punctuate at the end of an ellipsis if it is [a question] or [an exclamation]”…! On a modern computer keyboard, an ellipses is a single character accessed via a simple keystroke—such as simultaneously keying “Option” and semicolon on a Mac. In handwritten form, an ellipses is composed of three consecutively adjacent periods.

  • Daniel

    The Chicago style guide says, “three spaced periods”, “they must always appear together on the same line, along with any preceding punctuation.” And as I paraphrase, there is also some imformation given about the fact that a word processor may come with a single spaced elipses key, but that editors will automatically replace these with the appropriate style. I don’t know if that is true of all editors, but I do know that if I arbitrarilly type three periods in a row without spacing them, word perfect 12 automatically suggests changing it to three dots with spaces.

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