What Is an Ellipsis and How To Use It Correctly

Hmm… I’m wondering where I should start with this one… Well, how else am I going to introduce the ellipsis (plural: ellipses)?

In our technological age, the ellipsis has come into its own. For instance, we use it daily when texting and Twittering, and it regularly pops up in news articles and novels. We use it so much that we hardly take the time to notice it or the several vital jobs they do. However, despite their common usage as a punctuation mark, writers often misuse them. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you, I’ve set out in this article all the essentials you need to use the ellipsis correctly.

First, though, let me take you on a short tour of the history of the ellipses.

Ellipsis: Origins (Etymology)

An ellipsis is simply a punctuation mark comprising three dots or periods. The word ellipsis derives from  the Greek word, “ἔλλειψις” (éllipsis), which means “omission” or “falling short.” That fits perfectly in describing the various jobs these three little dots do in a sentence. Let’s go back in time to find out why:

History

The use of ellipses can be traced back to the 14th and 15th century medieval manuscripts. The scribbling monks, when faced by a mistranslated or lost word in a manuscript, developed the habit of highlighting the missing words by underlining the space with three or four dots—what scholars today call subpuncting or underdotting. If you are ever lucky enough to get the chance to look at a 16th-century text, you’ll see this on the page as evidence of where the monks used ellipses to show areas of omission.

And believe it or not, during the intervening centuries, scholars argued hotly amongst themselves about if, when, and how ellipses should be written—should it be three dots, or four, or even five?

It wasn’t until the 1980s and the rise of personal computers that the rules we use now were settled. Today, ellipses have various uses in writing, and I’m going to show you the basics so that you can use them correctly in your book.

News Writing

Any professional who writes news articles has an editor in their head who constantly reminds them to keep it short, sweet, and to the point. In most cases, various sources must be looked over, quoted, and seamlessly added into the article before it’s fit for publication. However, keeping “short, sweet and to the point” in mind, what if the quote you want to include is too long in its original form to fit the space available? Or, if some parts of the quote are redundant and don’t quite suit your point? Something has to go. Ellipses to the rescue! Have a look at the following example:

“Concerning the arson, a member of the neighborhood watch stated positively, absolutely, certainly, without the least shadow of a doubt, that it was a gang-related.”

That’s a bit over the top, isn’t it? Too many coordinate adjectives are saying the same thing. Let’s shorten it but keep the meaning intact by using ellipses:

“Concerning the arson, a member of the neighborhood watched stated … that it was gang-related.”

Note that, in news writing, the periods in an ellipsis do not have a space between them. That’s because the punctuation mark that that now denotes ellipses has been created with less than the standard space between each dot—it saves on character spaces. You can access this punctuation mark in Word quite easily: most word processing programs automatically create an ellipsis when you type three periods in a row with standard spacing. Try it and see what happens. Alternatively, you can access the ellipsis by clicking on the symbols icon on the Insert tab, then selecting the correct ellipsis icon to insert where you want it using the cursor.

Formal Writing

Academics are as picky about punctuation when they’re writing as those old-time scholars. Ellipses in academics are used in the same way as in news articles, as illustrated above, but with one crucial difference: as academic writing often involves quoting only a section of a sentence, an ellipsis with four periods is added to the end of the sentence for clarity. For example:

“The people … have a right to defend themselves….”

Note that when the ellipsis is in the place of a word or part of a sentence, leave a space on each side of the ellipsis. However, if the ellipsis is used to replace words at the end of a sentence, it should be followed by a period (.), question mark (?), or exclamation point (!) to end the sentence correctly.

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Informal Writing

In informal writing, ellipses have other jobs to perform that have nothing to do with omitted words or sections: they’re used to convey a pause in dialogue, a pause in the narrative, or the character or narrator drifting off. You’ve probably seen this in action when reading and not taken much notice because as you automatically understand what it conveys within that context. Nevertheless, to be clear, I’ve given you some examples of each scenario here:

Pause in dialogue: Henry nervously asked, “Is anyone there…?”

Pause in narrative: There wasn’t much to do… not much to say… my time here was done.

Character/Narrator trailing off: Did Henrietta really know who her father was, or did she simply pretend to fit in…?

Note, as I mentioned earlier, the ellipses aren’t being used here to denote any missing words or text, but instead to provide emphasized pauses that carry enough weight to urge the reader to think a little, to ponder on what the ellipses hint at—to drive the imagination beyond the written words on the page.

One thing worth noting is that advice on ellipsis usage can vary between style guides, so if you’re basing your writing on a specific guide, it’s advisable to make sure you’re in agreement before starting out. Good luck! I wonder how you’ll get on…?

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