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Ellipses, Ellipsis, Suspension Points, Oh My

How to use ellipses

If you’re like a lot of writers—and I suspect you are—you might not be sure how to use ellipsis points, also known as suspension points or simply ellipses.

Even the spelling and meaning can be confusing.

Ellipsis (singular) can refer to an omission of words, a phrase, or even an entire paragraph or more from a quotation. It’s not often used that way, however.

Ellipsis (singular) usually means three dots (periods or full stops) to represent the above omission. In other words, ellipsis means one specific punctuation mark composed of three dots.

I deleted that ellipsis and replaced it with an em dash.

Ellipses (plural, with an e instead of an i) is the plural of ellipsis. It’s the word we use when we refer to the punctuation mark in general.

Are you familiar with ellipses?

Suspension points are the same three dots as an ellipsis, but they’re used to indicate hesitation or a trailing thought. “Ellipsis” and “ellipses” are usually used to refer to suspension points (which is just a geeky grammar expression), but keep the different purpose in mind.

Ellipses can be confusing.

One reason they’re confusing is because we see them used in so many different (often incorrect) ways. And since they’re not an essential punctuation mark like a comma or a period, we don’t often need to use them. Unless, that is, we’re writers. But if you wanted to be a writer who never uses ellipses, you could probably get away with it.

But ellipses are useful.

Just a week ago, a Simple Writing subscriber emailed and asked for help with ellipses. She wrote:

I’ve searched the internet for an ellipsis example, but I couldn’t find one like this. Would you mind letting me know which way is the correct punctuation?

John nodded. “Kathy Mitchell is no more than . . .” he recalled how she’d kissed him and left him stranded, “a distant memory.”

or

John nodded. “Kathy Mitchell is no more than . . .” he recalled how she’d kissed him and left him stranded, “ . . . a distant memory.

Before I show you how I re-did those sentences, let’s look at the Dos and Don’ts regarding ellipses, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). That’s the style guide I use and the style guide preferred by fiction editors and publishers (and most bloggers would do well to follow it).

Keep in mind, however, that the AP Stylebook (for journalism and news media) prescribes a slightly different style for ellipses. So, to keep things simple—and since anyone reading this is likely a fiction writer, freelancer, or blogger—let’s stick with CMOS for simplicity.

Note: These tips apply specifically to US English conventions for ellipses, not British. Although the two aren’t very different, there are some differences.

1. DO remember that an ellipsis always consists of three dots.

Not four, not two, nothing but three. Confusion arises, however, since an ellipsis can sometimes follow a period, which makes it seem like four dots. But ellipses always contain three dots (periods or full stops).

2. DO use spaces before, in between, and after the three dots.

Horatio is planning to . . . well, he’s dreaming of living on a tropical island.

3. DO or DON’T use the precomposed ellipsis glyph ( … ).

Your word processing app (MS Word, Mac Pages) will create one when you hit three periods in a row without spaces. Or you might need to use a keyboard shortcut. For Word, [Ctrl + Alt + .] should work, among others. On Mac Pages it’s [option/alt + ;].

Compare:

Horatio is planning to . . . well, he’s dreaming of living on a tropical island.

Horatio is planning to … well, he’s dreaming of living on a tropical island.

The precomposed glyph is not a “true” ellipsis, as you might have heard. Three dots/periods/full stops with spaces between them are not a true ellipsis, either. There is no such thing as a “true ellipsis.” Remember, personal computers have only been around for a couple decades, and ellipses were in use even before Shakespeare used them.

Three dots with spaces, no spaces, a glyph with spaces, a glyph without spaces . . . these are just ways to create an ellipsis. There is no one “right” way; it’s a matter of style and convention.

I prefer three dots with spaces ( . . . ). CMOS does, too. But as long as you place spaces around the glyph, it’s fine by CMOS, although I don’t think it looks as pretty as dots with spaces (I think it looks kind of cheesy or disproportionate). And if you’re a fiction writer, an editor will replace it with three dots anyway.

4. DO use an ellipsis to indicate a missing word or words in a quote (or even sentences and paragraphs).

Be sure the sentence remains grammatically correct.

As Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said . . . but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

5. DON’T use an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quote to show that there’s more before or after the part you quoted.

Whether you quote a couple of lines out of the Magna Carta, the US Declaration of Independence, or The Hunger Games, you don’t need to remind readers that there’s more. It’s understood that the quote comes from a larger work.

6. DO use an ellipsis to indicate hesitant, faltering, or interrupted speech.

It can also mean dialogue that trails into nervous or awkward silence or an unfinished thought.

“I warned him of the danger, but he . . . he . . . he went anyway,” said Trish
“I warned him of the danger, but he . . .”
“But . . . but . . . ,” said Tom.

7. DON’T use a period with an ellipsis when an ellipsis is used to indicate a trailing thought (as above).

It doesn’t matter whether the sentence is complete or not since it ends for emotional or situational reasons, not stylistic reasons.

8. DO use a period when quoting a complete sentence followed by another complete sentence.

The period goes at the end of the sentence without a space (in the usual way). Then the ellipses (which makes it look like four dots, but it’s only three). Then start the new sentence, as in this quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart:

“You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. . . . I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. . . . So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.”

9. DON’T use ellipses for sudden breaks in thought or dialogue.

Remember, an ellipsis indicates an omission. That means you know what’s missing. With a sudden break, nothing is omitted other than unspoken words; it’s simply a sudden break. Use an em dash in this case.

“Will he—can he—handle living alone of a deserted island?” asked Trish.
“Well, you never know,” I said. “I thought he would—”
“Would what?” she yelled.

If text occurs in the middle of dialogue to explain the break or add information, em dashes are placed outside the quotation marks.

“Horatio can handle things better than you think, but”—my voice became sharp—“you just don’t want to believe it.”

10. DO be careful when using an ellipsis with other punctuation.

This is tricky, so I’ll quote directly from CMOS:

“Other punctuation appearing in the original text—a comma, a colon, a semicolon, a question mark, or an exclamation point—may precede or follow three (but never four) ellipsis points. Whether to include the additional mark of punctuation depends on whether keeping it aids comprehension or is required for the grammar of the sentence.”

This doesn’t apply to periods, just other punctuation. And here’s my advice:

Keep It Simple (KISS). Or “If in doubt, throw it out.” Fiction writers, bloggers, and most non-fiction writers or freelancers don’t usually have to deal with such technical matters. Some writers may need to, however. If you do, keep reading.

If you’re quoting material or getting fancy with your dialogue and using ellipses along with various other punctuation, then you should have your own online membership or copy of The Chicago Manual of Style or other style manual. This is serious stuff, and you should be going to the source (which is why I have a subscription and include so many links).

What advice did I give to the reader who emailed with the question about ellipses?

Although I don’t always respond to requests for free advice, if it’s something I can use for a blog post—and I have time—I’ll jump on it just because I enjoy it. Anyway, here’s my recommendation for the reader who emailed me about ellipses:

Original: John nodded. “Kathy Mitchell is no more than . . .” he recalled how she’d kissed him and left him stranded, “a distant memory.”

Corrected: John nodded. “Kathy Mitchell is no more than”—he recalled how she’d kissed him and left him stranded—“a distant memory.”

or

Corrected: John nodded. “Kathy Mitchell is no more than . . .” He recalled how she’d kissed him and left him stranded. “She’s just a distant memory.”

And that covers what you need to know about ellipses!

But just a quick note about….casual, “incorrect” use of ellipses. Or…. concerning how people often use ellipses like this….or this……or, oh I don’t know, really casual like this “……OMG! I can’t believe it…..He kissed her…..oh wow!…..I can’t believe it! Did she tell you?” on Facebook or Twitter and other social media.

If your friends aren’t complaining, and a prospective hiring manager or other VIP will never never never see it, don’t worry. Get creative and have fun. Language is for expression, not for worrying about rules.

Just remember: When you’re writing professionally (or in any situation where someone will judge you based on your skills or lack thereof, including email), make sure you get it right.

Comments and questions are always welcome. And if you found this helpful, share it!

Photo credit: Walt Stoneburner
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5 comments… add one
  • Fabulous job! What a service you’ve rendered, Leah, even for us editors who’ve been trained to know a lot about ellipses but are hard put to get it all down for new writers who are pulling their hair out trying to grasp all the subtleties. Thanks so much for taking the time and making the effort to put this all together in one place. And I’m with you when it comes to the cheesy appearance of “xxx … xxx” in text. If I only had a quarter for every time I’ve changed that occurrences (and xxx…xxx as well) during a copyedit of a ms.!

    I found this puzzling, however: Why only fiction? My experience is that this is true for nonfiction as well.

    One last (definitely picky) observation. I believe you left in an extra space after the “but” in this example: “Horatio can handle things better than you think, but ”—my voice became sharp—“you just don’t want to believe it.”

    I’d LOVE to hear you weigh in on a CMOS convention that drives me batty: the lower-casing of the name of our planet, “Earth,” when it leads to confusion or ambiguity or is simply downright incorrect, in my view. CMOS tends to advise (when pressed) that if you are editing a book in which a particular upper/lower distinction needs to be clarified due to frequency of use, then “do what thou wilt.” But I find that an insufficient answer and rather a cop-out. Any given sentence needs to be treated intelligently on its own merits.

    Below you can see what I’m talking about: Why on Earth (not earth, as in the ground you walk on 🙂 would you want to lowercase the word in these examples, which do not fit in with CMOS’s narrow rule/example of only capitalizing when the name of our planet is in relation to other planets? These are actual sentences from books I have worked on or read. It would make little sense to say, for example,
    1. “Water covers three-quarters of the earth and makes up 90 percent of our body mass.”
    2. “This idea competed with the traditional biblical view, which assumed a young earth some six thousand years old.”
    3. “An Indian healer from Latin America is quoted on National Public Radio as saying that the earth is groaning and struggling during this time of environmental abuse.” [Yes, I say, and so are the waters, and the planet’s atmosphere—not to mention the people and animals!]
    And this is perhaps the most exasperating ambiguity due to noncapitalization I’ve encountered so far:
    4. “I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth.”

    My take is this: Capitalize the word when it’s referring to the planet as a whole, not the part of it that we consider to be earth in contrast with any other aspect of the physical creation, such as water, sky, air, etc. It doesn’t matter whether the sun and/or the moon are in the same sentence and it looks a little odd to have “Earth” in caps nearby. That’s merely an issue of cosmetics, whereas what we’re after here is clarity. Simply capitalize ALL names of planets as planets and be done with it. And there’s nothing wrong with saying “the Earth”—people often, though not always, include the definite article. Your views on this, Leah?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your kind words! As for “Why only fiction? My experience is that this is true for nonfiction as well.” You’re right—the same rules go for non-fiction IF the publication follows CMOS, even though it’s fairly standard (I can think of a few big blogs that follow AP, then there’s APA, MLA, Bluebook, house styles, and so on, as you know). I think you’re referring to what I said about CMOS used by fiction publishers. With non-fiction, the style guide depends, of course, on the subject matter and type of publication.

      As for capitalization or not of earth: I don’t have any issue with distinguishing between casual use of “the earth” and more formal or technical usage of “Earth” with upper and lower case as CMOS recommends (below). It seems to me a bit overdone to always capitalize “the earth” when used in slang expressions, for example, or in casual usage. Regardless, I don’t worry too much about stuff like that. Then again, I haven’t had to edit something in which clarity is all muddled up over it, either. But I would either follow CMOS exactly (or AP or whatever the publication needs) OR devise some new rule that works for the purpose and makes the client/writer happy. Since I switch back and forth with AP and CMOS a lot (and occasionally other style guides), I don’t get attached 🙂 Hope that helps! And thanks for your interesting comments! (And I fixed that extra space—thanks!)

      8.139 “Earth” http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch08/ch08_sec140.html

      “In nontechnical contexts the word earth, in the sense of our planet, is usually lowercased when preceded by the or in such idioms as “down to earth” or “move heaven and earth.” When used as the proper name of our planet, especially in context with other planets, it is capitalized, and the is usually omitted.

      Some still believe the earth is flat.
      The gender accorded to the moon, the sun, and the earth varies in different mythologies.
      Where on earth have you been?
      The astronauts have returned successfully to Earth.
      Does Mars, like Earth, have an atmosphere?”

      Reply
  • When you capitalize “earth” in ordinary expression, the capitalization calls attention itself because the word is not usually capitalized. Logical as it may be to always capitalize it, ease of reading must be the overriding consideration.

    Reply
  • Why do you have two points numbered 6 . . . ?

    Reply
    • I believe that’s called a brain fart. AKA typo. Thanks for catching it! 🙂

      Reply

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