How To Use an Ellipsis… Correctly

Joe here. Please note that I created the title above as an intentionally incorrect use of ellipses. I realized while writing it that if I didn’t tell you it was incorrect, Liz might stab me in the eye with her red pen. Anyway, on to the post!

Liz here. Here at the Write Practice, we have love for all punctuation marks: commas, semicolons, question marks. Today we’re discussing that trio of periods that make up the ellipsis.

What’s an ellipsis?

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What Is An Ellipsis?

An ellipsis is a trio of periods (…) that serve as a placeholder for text. It’s most commonly used in undergraduate history papers that require copious citations.

For example, the writer Oscar Wilde says in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”

If I were editing this quote to be used in newsprint, where type space is precious, I might use an ellipsis to make it read as such:

Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! … Was there anything so real as words?

The idea of the text is preserved, and space is conserved.

When Ellipses Go Wrong

On occasion, you might see an ellipsis used as an indication of a place where the writer or speaker has paused or lost their train of thought. Such as:

Well yes, Dorian, the retrieval of post-modern socie … is that a bunny?

This is perfectly acceptable, as long as your protagonist isn’t losing their train of thought every other paragraph. Too many ellipses can detract from the effectiveness of the prose (and some readers and writers find it irritating to no end).

In summation, if you’re removing text from a quotation (while keeping the meaning intact, of course), then use the ellipsis.

If you have a mental space cadet for a main character, you might want to tone down your desire to use those dots.

How Many Periods Are There In An Ellipses?

You might wonder just how many dots should be in an ellipsis. The answer is that sometimes there are three! Sometimes there are four!

That’s a lie, actually. There is no such thing as a four-dot ellipsis. A four-dot ellipsis is actually an ellipsis with a period at the end of it. It’s important to remember that you still should punctuate properly even if you’re using an ellipsis.

When using ellipses in conjunction with other punctuation, whether they be commas, semicolons, question marks, or exclamation points, treat the ellipsis as though it was just another word in the sentence.

For example, if Chuck and Carlton just escaped an encounter with a rabid hamster, and are interviewed by the local paper, a journalist might choose to eliminate some of the more superfluous text.

Chuck might say: “I never expected this! Never in a million years! I can’t believe that I managed to escape with my life. Carlton almost got bitten, right after the thing started turning purple. We’re lucky to be alive.”

The journalist, with precious type space available, cuts it down to this: “I never expected this! … We’re lucky to be alive.”

Note that the exclamation point remains in place, while the ellipsis follows it to replace the omitted words. This would be the same if other portions were eliminated. (“I can’t believe that I managed to escape with my life. … We’re lucky to be alive.”)

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes about a spacey-yet-brilliant fan of classic literature. Use ellipses properly as your character spouts lines from Wilde, Shakespeare, Emerson, or their preferred writer.

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About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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