Episode 225: June 10, 2010
by Mignon Fogarty
People often ask how to use ellipses, those little dot-dot-dots you often see in e-mail messages. For example, Mitra from Michigan asked, “When is it appropriate to use '...' in writing? People use it all the time, and it seems like a way to make your writing more informal and conversational, as if you were pausing. Can you also use [the dot-dot-dot] for formal writing?”
The answer is that you can use ellipses in formal writing in other ways, and you can occasionally use an ellipsis as Mitra described in his e-mail, but you shouldn't overdo it.
Using An Ellipsis to Show an Omission
In formal writing, the most common way to use an ellipsis is to show that you’ve omitted words. For example, if you're quoting someone and you want to shorten the quote, you use ellipses to indicate where you've dropped words or sentences.
Here's a quote from the book Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens: “I cannot help it; reason has nothing to do with it; I love her against reason.”
Now far be it from me to edit Dickens, but if I were a journalist under a tight word limit looking at that quotation, I'd be tempted to shorten it to this: “I cannot help it . . . I love her against reason.” That middle part—“reason has nothing to do with it”—seems redundant, and taking it out doesn't change the meaning. Dot-dot-dot and it's gone, which saves seven words. Clearly, literature and journalism are not the same thing.
Here’s another example from a recent review of the movie “Get Him to the Greek.” In the Contra Costa Times, Randy Myers writes, “The outrageous ‘Greek’ works better than ‘Funny People’ at least in part because Apatow, who tends to make films that meander too much, hands over writing and directing to a protégé.”
If I wanted to quote Myers, and I had limited space, I could use an ellipsis to shorten the quotation: “The outrageous ‘Greek’ works better than ‘Funny People’ . . . because Apatow hands over writing and directing to a protégé.
Don’t Use Ellipses to Change the Meaning of a Quotation
It’s wrong to use an ellipsis to make even a subtle change to the meaning of a quotation.
Integrity is essential when using ellipses this way. It's acceptable to tighten a long quotation by omitting unnecessary words, but it's important that you don't change the meaning. For example, the original quotation points out that Apatow hands over writing and directing to a protégé. Leaving out either “writing” or “directing” would change the meaning of the quotation, and even though it’s only a subtle change, it’s still wrong.
It would also be wrong to leave out the part about it working better than “Funny People,” another Apatow movie. Again it’s a subtle change in meaning, but to say it works better than “Funny People” is different from just saying it works.
The E-mail Ellipsis
Now, on to the other use of ellipses that you frequently see in e-mail: the ellipsis that’s used to indicate a pause or a break in the writer's train of thought. Many people have written to me to say that they find this kind of use annoying, but a number of style guides say that ellipses can be used to indicate a pause or falter in dialog, the passage of time, an unfinished list, or that a speaker has trailed off in the middle of a sentence or left something unsaid (1, 2, 3, 4). For example, The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” The Manual contrasts ellipses with dashes, which it states should be reserved for more confident and decisive pauses.
So, it is allowable to use ellipses to indicate pauses or breaks in the writer's train of thought as you see so frequently done in e-mail, especially where a break is meant to feel uncertain. Nevertheless (and this is a BIG nevertheless) most people who use ellipses in e-mail overdo it—a lot.
You should not replace all normal punctuation with ellipses. You should not allow the sweet lure of ellipses to muddle your ability to write a complete sentence. To quote the book Grammar for Dummies, “Using ellipses in this way can get annoying really fast.”
The author of one of my favorite books, Punctuate it Right, feels this way about writers who use ellipses to imply that they have more to say: “It is doubtful that they have anything in mind, and the device seems a rather cheap one.”
So, use ellipses to show hesitation or a trailing off of thoughts if you must, but use them sparingly, and know that although it's grammatically correct, it's considered by some to be annoying and cheap.
Finally, there are some other special circumstances where ellipses seem to be allowed.
The Comic Strip Ellipsis
I wouldn't consider this formal writing, but comic strip writers have been known to use ellipses instead of periods. I'm speculating here, but it seems as if the ellipses are being used as a way to draw you into the next frame—as if they are saying, “Keep going; there's more to come.” For example, Charles Schulz always used ellipses instead of periods at the end of sentences in Peanuts.
The Gossip and Show Business Column Ellipsis
Next, I was surprised to see that The Associated Press Stylebook allows the use of ellipses for what they call “special effects”: The stylebook states, “Ellipses also may be used to separate individual items within a paragraph of show business gossip or similar material.”
Some famous newspaper writers have used ellipses in this way instead of periods to separate their rambling thoughts. Larry King heartily used ellipses in his USA Today column, as did Herb Caen in his San Francisco Chronicle column. In fact, Herb Caen is reported to have coined the phrase “three-dot journalism” to describe such writing, and he was so beloved in San Francisco that when he died the city named a street after him—and included an ellipsis in the name: Herb Caen Way . . . (5).
To sum up, use ellipses sparingly to indicate hesitation or faltering speech or thoughts, and use them to shorten long quotations when necessary, but be sure you don’t change the meaning.
Web Bonus: How to Make an Ellipsis
Now that you know how to use ellipses, you need to know how to make them. An ellipsis consists of exactly three dots called ellipsis points—never two dots, never four dots—just three dots.
Most style guides call for a space between the dots. Typesetters and page designers use something called a thin space or a non-breaking space that prevents the ellipsis points from getting spread over two lines in a document (6). Also, many fonts have an ellipsis symbol that you can insert, but for everyday purposes, it's fine to use regular spaces between the ellipsis points. Type period-space-period-space-period (7). Just make sure your dots don’t end up on two different lines.
Also, usually there is a space on each side of an ellipsis. The ellipsis is typically standing in for a word or a sentence, so just imagine that it's a word itself, and then it's easy to remember to put a space on each side.
If you're omitting something that comes after a complete sentence, meaning that your ellipsis has to follow a period, put the period at the end of the sentence just like you normally would, then type a space, and then type or insert your ellipsis. Again, you're treating the ellipsis as if it were a word: the first word of the next sentence. This will result in four dots in a row with spaces between each dot, but this is not a four-dot ellipsis—there's no such thing. It is a period followed by a regular three-dot ellipsis.
I’ll also put some examples of sentences that combine ellipses with other punctuation marks such as exclamation points and semicolons.
Ellipses at the beginning and end of quotations
Most style guides don't call for an ellipsis when you omit something at the beginning or end of a quotation, but occasionally you need one. For example, if you leave out something at the beginning of a sentence, but your remaining quotation starts with a capital letter, you need an ellipsis to show the reader that the quotation is beginning in the middle of the original sentence.
Aardvark said, “. . . Squiggly never caught a fish.” [Perhaps the original quotation was “Even though he was on the lake all day, Squiggly never caught a fish.”]
“Where did he go? . . . Why did he go out again?” [Material is removed between the two sentences]
“Where did he go . . . ? Why did he go out again?” [Material is removed before the first question mark. Note the space between the last ellipsis point and the question mark.]
Treat exclamation points as you would question marks.
“Aardvark went home, . . . and Squiggly decided to meet him later.”
“Aardvark went home . . . ; Squiggly would meet him later.” [Note the space between the ellipsis and the semicolon.]
1. Shaw, H. Punctuate It Right. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993, p. 105.
2. The Chicago Manual of Style. 14th Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 368.
3. Goldstein, N. ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Reading: Perseus Books, 1998, p. 272.
4. Woods, G. English Grammar for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2001, p. 331.
5. Ellar, J. “Herb Caen Gets His Way.” SFGate.com. June 14, 1996. (accessed May 26, 2007).
6. Walsh, B. Lapsing Into a Comma. Chicago: Contemporary Books., 2004, p. 82.
7. Straus, J. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. 9th Edition. Mill Valley: Jane Straus, 2006, p. 31.
Essay Contest Winner: “Ellipses Spurned”
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