Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 121: Ellipsis Incorporated

This week on Grammar Grater, we're looking at a popular and versatile punctuation mark: the ellipsis. It is also known as a suspension point or points of ellipsis. It looks like three dots in a row: ...

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines ellipsis as:

The omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete; the punctuation mark or marks indicating such an omission; or, in dialogue, a pause in speech or thought.

First, we'll examine the more formal use of the ellipsis. In journalistic or academic writing, the ellipsis is the punctuation mark you use when you leave non-essential words, phrases, or sentences out of a quote for the purpose of clarifying, or reducing the length of a piece of writing. As an example, the sentence:

"Count Dracula, as a character, is a centuries-old vampire who claims to be a Hungarian descended from Attila the Hun, a famed aerobics enthusiast."

could be reduced to:

"Count Dracula ... is a centuries-old vampire who claims to be a Hungarian descended from Attila the Hun ... . "

It's useful to employ ellipses (the plural form of ellipsis) when you need to reduce a quote to only the most relevant words, but, as it says in the Associated Press Stylebook, "be especially careful to avoid deletions that would distort the meaning." For example:

"Count Dracula ... is ... a famed aerobics enthusiast."

In most written text, the ellipsis can indicate the omission of entire words, fragments, phrases or paragraphs and still be represented by only the single punctuation mark. As such, it is essential that the writer not misrepresent the speaker's intent.

The other—less formal, but more popular—use of an ellipsis comes when writing dialogue. Here, it is often employed to impart a measured silence from a character or narrator. The Chicago Manual of Style says,

Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.

In this sense, the ellipsis is used to highlight a character's or writer's thoughtfulness, incompleteness or apprehension in a way that is more nuanced or ambiguous than a comma or dash. For example:

"I don't drink ... water," said Dracula.

An ellipsis also works well to convey an unfinished thought, or a sentence that trails off into silence.

"Now, where did I put that wooden stake? I was sure it was around here somewhere..."

Ellipses also provide a great way to represent only one side of a telephone call in dialogue.

"Hello, may I speak to the manager please ... Oh, OK, can you help me? ... Please Send the bloodmobile right away ... Have you got a pen ready? ... I'll give you the address...."

Those are the primary reasons for using an ellipsis, but the rules for formatting an ellipsis can be tricky, too.

Many style guides disagree on how to correctly format ellipses: whether to use three periods/full points in a row, or to put spaces between those dots; some style guides even suggest you insert a special character. It's a good rule of thumb to know what stylebook your school, college or organization uses, and write to the specifications stated within that manual.

The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, suggests typing out three dots, because "there is the potential for character-mapping problems—the ellipsis could appear as some other character across software and browser platforms—an added inconvenience. So it's best to type three spaced dots, like this: . . . "

By contrast, in The Elements of Typographic Style, author Robert Bringhurst says that "a full space between each dot ... is much too wide" — and he suggests using dots right next to each other or inserting a special character that utilizes spaces smaller in width.

Whatever the case on how to construct an ellipsis, most style guides are in agreement on the spacing around them; specifically, always put a space before and after an ellipsis.

They also agree on how ellipses work with punctuation; specifically, when the sentence calls for a period/full stop, question mark, exclamation mark, comma or colon, the sequence is: word, punctuation mark, regular space, ellipsis.

If you've omitted one or more paragraphs in a long quote, include an ellipsis at the end of the preceding paragraph.

While those are the basics on standard written usage of ellipses, one frequently sees informal use of ellipses in emails, instant messages and status updates. Ellipses are indeed common characters in digital formats. In those contexts, ellipses usually indicate a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, or that there is more information coming shortly. As always, it's best to leave informal writing to informal contexts, and when it comes to formal writing, it's best to pick one style of usage and be consistent throughout your writing.

Music from this episode: "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc.; "Soul Dracula" by Hot Blood; "Saturday Night at the Movies" by The Drifters.

Sources: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition; The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst; and "The power of dots: using nonverbal compensators in chat reference" by Jack Maness (available online, courtesy University of Colorado at Boulder).


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