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How To Use an Ellipsis… Correctly

This post was originally posted on December 13, 2011. We’ve updated it here with more information to help you never use ellipses incorrectly again.

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!
Ellipsis & Ellipses

Photo by Chris Drumm

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?

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.

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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  • Oddznns

    So … now I know! A request – at some point can you write about dialogue, quotation marks and how to do paragraphing during a dialogue. I am so confused … not to mention frustrated.

    Was that a correct use of ellipsis?
    And … by the way, my query about dialogue arises from true need.
    Thank you.

    • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

      Request noted! Look for an answer next week. :)

      • Oddznns

        Thank you.

      • ♥AEIA♥

        Liz can i ask some query? oh please, i really need to know it.

    • Brendalina57

      Maybe I can help you with dialogue questions…

  • http://shewritesandrights.blogspot.com Bethany Suckrow

    THANK YOU. Seriously. I know so many people…who use them like this…for no apparent reason. Drives me nuts.

    • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

      You are so welcome, Bethany. Joe actually alerted me to your ellipsis request, so thank YOU for providing me with inspiration this week!

  • http://augustmclaughlin.wordpress.com/ August McLaughlin

    Such a useful post, Liz. And you managed to make a potentially dull topic entertaining. :) Thanks!

    • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

      You are so welcome, August! And thank you for the kind words. :)

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for clarifying the proper use of Ellipses…that is in fact a bunny.

    • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

      I’m partial to puppies, myself, but there is something to be said for a fluffy bunny.

      • Anonymous

        Can you say that while stuffing marshmallows in your mouth?

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          martial moo muppiessss. martial mooo muppiess.

          • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

            I think he means the fluffy bunny part. You’ve never played that game, JHB?

          • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

            Yes I have. But I thought he meant puppies instead of bunnies.

  • Ryan Hughes

    I love Ellipses….I use them all the time! And, I just learned…I use them the WRONG WAY….convicted!

    • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

      Haha, glad we can help guide you to the light, Ryan!

  • Joylynn

    :) wow.

  • Amigo

    When using an ellipsis that goes over a period you should add a fourth dot. Right?
    There are surely more rules to using an ellipsis than you have stated.

    For example:
    “They went to the mall. While they were there, they got ice cream. It was good, and they had a good time.”

    If I used an ellipsis I would say:
    “They went to the mall . . . . and had a good time.”

    • http://twitter.com/epbure Liz

      There are absolutely more rules. Punctuation and ellipses is a blog for another day, but for your question above, you would place the period as you normally would (without a space) and then begin the ellipsis.

  • Anonymous

    An Excerpt from Tomdub’s 101 (mis)Uses of Ellipses

    The Suggestive Ellipsis
    “He gave her a wink. ‘So, do you wanna…?’”

    The Awkward Pause Ellipsis
    “Not until after I walked out of my cabin did I realize it was a dude ranch, NOT nude ranch…”

    The Moment of Silence Ellipsis
    “Let us remember those who’ve gone before us…”

    The Yada, Yada, Yada Ellipsis
    “Immediately after the winner of the hot dog eating contest received his blue ribbon, he ran to the bathroom and…”

    The Too Lazy to Count Ellipsis
    “1-2-3… 100”

    The Walked in to the Middle of a Conversation Ellipsis
    “…and then he told me to bend over.”

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Wow. Please tell me you’ve posted this on a blog somewhere so I can read the whole thing. Unbelievable.

      • Anonymous

        Haha! I lied. There is no “Tomdub’s 101 (mis)Uses of Ellipses,” only 6…

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          It makes it eve better. You should post this on your blog, though. Tell me when you do and I’ll link to it in this post.

    • Anonymous

      Tom – I just read this because I just got to this point in the grammar tutorial. It’s great!!!

    • Audrey Chin

      Wonderful. If you don’t have 101… just get to 11 and then leave an ellipsis.

    • jennastamps

      Call me the novice that I am, but most of these look okay to me. (Oh no! Don’t throw tomatoes!) Could someone PLEASE tell me the proper way to punctuate these examples, since the ellipsis is being misused here? Okay, actually I don’t think I would make the mistake of The Moment of Silence Ellipsis, but I’m sure I’m guilty of the others. Would a dash be preferable in the last example? I’m confused :(. (I had “I’m confused :(…” but then thought better of it and took it off—yikes!) (???)

  • http://mjmonaghan.wordpress.com Michael Monaghan

    Guilty … as charged!! Thanks for the tip.

  • http://twitter.com/ArcadeStarlet Chrissey Harrison

    Great, concise tips.
    “This is perfectly acceptable, as long as your protagonist isn’t losing their train of thought every other paragraph.” Agreed. Everything in moderation.
    I now write my first drafts and then go through and remove all the ellipses I used unless they are absolutely necessary. Then I go through again and delete those.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha nice Chrissey. Great two step method :)

  • http://www.lawbh.com/ Stefanie

    As a former newspaper editor, I can emphatically state that there is almost always something wrong with an ellipsis when it’s used to indicate missing text in a quote.
    Let’s play with a simple quote: “I can’t wait to get out of here. I’ve been practicing like crazy for the school talent show. My guitar solo tonight is going to be awesome!”
    Now if the missing text is between two complete sentences, the ellipsis should
    appear as follows: “I can’t wait to get out of here. … My guitar solo tonight is going to be awesome!” (Note the space after the period ending the first sentence and the ellipsis.)
    However, if the quote were changed to combine portions of two sentences, it should appear as follows: “I’ve been practicing like crazy for … [m]y guitar solo tonight …!”
    Alternatively, an ellipsis can indicate text missing between paragraphs: “I can’t wait to get out of here. I’ve been practicing like crazy for the school talent show.
    … My guitar solo tonight is going to be awesome!” (Starting the sentence immediately after the ellipsis indicates that a sentence or sentences are missing from the beginning of the paragraph.)
    If an entire paragraph were removed, the ellipsis would appear as follows;
    “I can’t wait to get out of here. I’ve been practicing like crazy for the school talent show.

    My guitar solo tonight is going to be awesome!”
    Yikes! Silly ellipsis.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Now could that be a different style guide? I wonder if MLA and Chicago have different opinions on the ellipses? Still, this is great info. Thanks Stephanie!

    • Jerry Alan

      well i suppose it[ … ] really means what the reader thinks, howeve ri do enjoy your ponderings. I am not a professional writer but enjoy writing and reading for a better understanding. I have always wanted to use square brackets how cool is that

      thanks

  • http://kerugma.net/ HomeGrownKids

    So… how about people who use The Yada, Yada, Yada Ellipsis but write/type it as …………………………………………

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha. Well, yes, that would be incorrect. I like that you called it the “yada, yada, yada ellipsis.

  • Anonymous

    Daphne had written to him several times and included snippets from Virginia Woolf.
    She described her feelings about how she wrote fiction, and added this from “A Room of One’s Own, “A spider’s web,…still attached to life at all four corners.” She described her feelings about memories being diluted at the beginning of life and then being blindingly bright when closer to the present and added, “If life has a base that it stands on,… stands upon this memory”, a famous quote from “Moments of Being”.

    The idea that recent memories were blindingly bright was not always true for Daphne. Things had become brighter since she had met him in her class, since she had decided that he was the one for her; but now, it was time for her to have a date, to go with him to dinner, and she had not mentioned in any of her notes, that she was disorganized, that her thoughts ran in circles and that speaking made it even worse, because she was shy. She thought she should warn him about her inability to make conversation, but she didn’t do it, she didn’t send this quote from “The Waves”, “The streamers of consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn…I cannot therefore concentrate on my dinner.”

    He, however, had no problem talking, and could continue talking thought any activity. He talked to her as he helped her into the car, the talked to her as they waited for a table, and he talked to her in the midst of their ordering dinner.

    “What do you think about her description of what Bernard is looking at in the first chapter of “The Waves? Was he the one who talked about pushing through the cabbages in the garden?”

    “You mean the part about the cat or fox coming home all dirty…look they have peas on the menu…I can’t remember if there were peas in the garden or cabbage. What were you asking me… Bernard, maybe it was Louis who thought that part.”

  • A. Einstein

    Dear Liz, In some examples I note a space before the ellipsis, in some a space after the ellipsis. In others, such as your Mr. Wilde citation, an Einsteinian space appears on both sides of the ellipsis, making it an orphan caught in the space-time continuum. In yet others the ellipsis finds itself with no space on either side of it, fearing that it will be crushed out of existence by the weight of the universes on either side. What is a poor ellipsis user to do? (signed) A. Einstein

  • Jerry Alan

    Oh he is brilliant my friend Al Gore! He is an inventor and his love of shrimp is paled by, by any how he loves coconut shrimp my dear. He devoured 16 pieces of those golden brown coconut encrusted beauties last time we dined. Al reminds me of those people of Spoon River like when the character Roger Heston is … Did I tell you that my friend Al was a Governor, yes can you believe it dear, what state was he governor over well let’s see perhaps Kentucky no it was Arkansas. Oh! I remember Tennessee that’s it dear.
    Oh yes Roger Heston he was arguing with Earnest Hyde, he said “What’s that, free will or what?” as he ran for his life. Poor Roger

    • Jerry Alan

      i have always wondered about the … ellipses. For me its a visual thing i like the way it makes things appear just like the word perhaps i love the sound of that word. Any how not that i will get a reply i am enjoying the idea i might…

  • Yalí Noriega

    He can be brilliant and funny, but most of the time he is just annoying. I am convinced he is a frustrated literature professor and loves taking it out on us. Hey, it’s not my fault he decided to go for Sciences instead!

    There he goes again. “The world is a stage…” . He quotes authors right and left; what amazes me is he never seems to get them wrong. He’s got one hell of a memory, I’ll give him that.

    “… as Ishmael would say.” Who’s Ishmael? Perhaps I should not space out when he opens his mouth; I might learn something. At the very least, which books he is referencing. I don’t think I’d have time to read them all, though. I don’t read like he does.

     Something he says grabs my attention. It must have been my name. “Did you get lost on the Island of the Day Before?… Eco?” The only echo I know can be found in caves, so I say nothing. He sighs. “There are more islands than the one in ‘Lost’, you know? Mystery Island, Treasure Island…. In fact, your ‘Lost’ island is based on all of them.” Maybe I should start reading, after all. I have wondered where the script writers got all their ideas.

    “Dad, I don’t…. Actually, no, I do care. Which of those islands should I read about first?” He stands up, turns toward the library and I can see him smiling.

  • http://thethoughtfulbuttonhook.wordpress.com/ Kate

    I’m new, and I have just read this. Oh my goodness, I do that all the time – incorrect use of ellipsis. Even in all the comments I have made in the Write Practice. I will make a concerted effort to stop right now. Ahem.

  • http://www.facebook.com/georgeorgeorge.zvanovec Georgeorgeorge Arto Zvanovec

    so toms use of ellipses are incorrect?? i just looked up “ellipsis” on wiki and i think some might work. i could be wrong though, i am kind of a high school drop out

  • sheaaaaa

    beast

  • http://www.facebook.com/michelle.mieras.9 Michelle Mieras

    I definitely needed this post. Also loved Tomdub’s 101 (mis) Uses of Ellipses. Thanks for sharing!

  • Robert

    Hi guys. I see you are using the ellipsis only in conversations. Is it possible to use it as an end of a sentence or a paragraph? i.e. His final thoughts, My God! The food was poisoned, how silly of me, and attempts to hold on to consciousness, extending his arms with imploring hands towards Mari Si, collapsing into shadows…

    • http://twitter.com/epbure liz

      It’s certainly possible to use the ellipsis to end a sentence. It generally comes off better in a first-person or third-person limited narration setting.

      • Robert

        Thanks a lot, Liz! ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/theauthorrwfoster R.w. Foster

    I did not know this. I’ve always used them to indicate that my speaker was trailing off, or to indicate that s/he’d for gotten their words just before they spoke them.

  • New

    Question: It looks like YOU put a space in between the ellipsis and the last word before it and another space in between the ellipsis and the next word. I have not seen it like that. I have seen: It was almost the last word… where the ellipsis connects to the last word.

    In both examples of uses, you seem to put a space before and after the ellipsis.

    Is that correct usage on the page – or should it, connect to a word? Such as when the speaker pauses and then continues (i.e., “It’s like I think…forget that. I know.” His voice deepened as he spoke.)

    • http://twitter.com/epbure liz

      When you’re connecting two complete sentences in an editorial manner, adding the space before and after the ellipsis is generally the way to go. In other circumstances, such as when you’re using them in a creative context like you mention, connecting the words without the spacing is fine.

  • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

    The only question I have left is the correct way to type an ellipsis. Is there a space between each period and is there one before and after the whole ellipsis? Is it “…” or “. . .” and if the later that makes the period and ellipsis much more confusing looking.

    • http://twitter.com/epbure liz

      There’s actually a specially formatted ellipsis that appears in my word processor like magic, but when that’s not available, generally spacing between the dots is the way to go.

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        I recently got a great tip from Jeff Goins that you can make that magic ellipsis by pressing alt+semicolon (at least on mac). See: …

  • New

    (Continuing my question): I have been googling it and have found it used connected tot the words on this and other sites: http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/ellipses.asp (which is how I have used it previously). Now am confused. Which way is correct?

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    From a typographic standpoint, you should use true ellipses (…), not just three periods (…). There’s a difference in the amount of spacing. Yes, a little anal, but hey — we’re talking about ellipses for crying out loud!

    • http://byrdmouse.com Jonathan

      Nothing wrong with being a little anal about it, right? Although that makes me wonder what the correct plural version of ellipsis is… (not an ellipsis, just trailing off my thought).

    • http://wp.me/Igbc Prattle On, Boyo

      Second that, Jeff. I almost always use […] when I bother to use ellipses at all. I’ve only ever seen the use of brackets in legal writing, however, which is where I picked up the practice.

  • George McNeese

    Thank you for posting this valuable lesson. I pride myself on being as grammatically accurate as possible. This certainly helps.

  • Sal :)

    Greetings Liz. I am new to WP and enjoyed this post. However am still a bit foggy on the creative use of ellipsis as distinct from its editorial use. If this distinction is nonsensical, please ignore or deride at will. Sometimes it feels like I have three dots in my brain where there ought to be information on how to use ellipsis (etcetera!)….

    • http://twitter.com/epbure liz

      Hi Sal! Welcome to WP. Glad to have you here.

      From a creative standpoint, ellipses are generally used in dialogue to indicate when a character trails off vocally or loses their train of thought. It can also be used in first-person or third-person limited narration for similar purposes.

      Editorially, ellipses are pretty exclusively used to replace words or sentences in quotations for the sake of brevity without taking away from the meaning of the quote.

      • Sal :)

        Thanks for that, Liz. It does seem to be the narrative use of ellipsis that is most confusing, and I’m still not sure what you mean by “limited narration.” Katherine Mansfield is one of my favourite authors and she uses ellipsis liberally in her narration. For example, if I may quote her, in her famous story The Doll’s House, she writes: “Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at the dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel….” just as one example of many. This usage seems to be to suggestive of thoughts that are better left unspoken, to create mystery and suspense, I guess. Would you agree? And more to the point, would you use ellipses in this way?

  • Audrey Chin

    Oh… I am so guilty of overusing and misusing ellipses. Why is that I wonder …. It must be something to do with a naturally scatty mind! Thanks for this set of useful reminders. What would I do without thewritepractice.com?…

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  • Name

    I heard noises, discreet but clear.
    A footstep or two and the creaking of the floors and doors… sleeping is
    impossible in this place.
    Have i used ellipsis right?

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  • Debbie Niemeyer

    WHY…CAN’T YOU SHOW MORE EXAMPLES….??!!!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Well, this be a good example of what not to do. :)