Ellipsis

Ellipsis (the Punctuation Mark)

An ellipsis (...) is a punctuation mark made up of three dots. An ellipsis is used:
  • To show an omission of a word or words (including whole sentences) from a text.
  • To create a pause for effect.
  • To show an unfinished thought.
  • To show a trail off into silence.

Examples of Ellipsis to Show an Omission of a Word or Words from a Text.

  • I stopped believing in Santa Claus … when he asked for my autograph. (Actress Shirley Temple)
  • (Original: "I stopped believing in Santa Claus when my mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.")
  • Hope is being able to see … light despite … the darkness. (South African cleric Desmond Tutu)
  • (Original: "Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.")
An ellipsis that replaces missing words is sometimes placed in square brackets.
  • A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off […] nothing looks more stupid than a hat. (Satirist PJ O'Rourke)
  • (Original: "A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life – nothing looks more stupid than a hat.")
  • […] The Eagle has landed. (Astronaut Neil Armstrong)
  • (Original: "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.")
Square brackets are useful to make it clear that the ellipsis did not appear in the original text or to differentiate it from a pause for effect.
  • He would eat [...] jam, ham, spam, lamb, and cram...berries by the tram load.
  • (The square brackets around the ellipsis tell us that the ellipsis was not in the original, making it clear that the author has removed some text. The brackets also differentiate the omission from the later pause for effect.)

Examples of Ellipsis to Create a Pause for Effect.

  • Jealousy ... is a mental cancer. (Author Bertie Charles Forbes) 
  • He was empty ... filled with rage ... the embodiment of a broken heart.
  • A credit card stolen in London was used to pay for a Chinese meal five hours later ... in Bangkok.
Square brackets are not used with an ellipsis for a pause for effect.
  • Gleaming through the sludge in the U bend was […] my earring. [wrong]

Examples of Ellipsis to Show an Unfinished Thought.

  • Yeah? Well, you can just....
  • That is gruesome. Revenge is one thing, but....
When an ellipsis ends a sentence, use four dots (three for the ellipsis and one for the full stop).

Examples of Ellipsis to Show a Trail Off into Silence.

  • With the Lord's Prayer mumbling across our lips, we climbed the ladders…."

The Format for Ellipsis

When using ellipses, be consistent with your formatting. That's the golden rule. In order of popularity, the formats are as follows:
  • "A big … woman"
  • "A big…woman"
  • "A big . . . woman"
  • "A big [...] woman"
  • "A big [. . .] woman"
When an ellipsis used for a pause or a trail off into silence appears at the end of a sentence, your options are as follows:
  • "Join in or...."
  • "Join in or... ."
  • "Join in or ... ."

Why Should I Care about Ellipsis?

When you need to reduce word count (e.g., to meet the criteria for an academic paper or to fit some text into an exact space), an ellipsis that removes redundant words from a quotation is a useful tool to have in your back pocket.

An ellipsis is also a useful tool in creative writing as it can be used to express hesitation, suspense or a change of mood.

Be aware though that using ellipsis could annoy your readers. Here are four common issues related to using an ellipsis.

(1) Your readers might want to see the whole quotation.

When using an ellipsis to omit words from a quotation, you remove words that you judge unimportant for your message and for your readers. Not knowing what those words were, your readers might wish they'd been shown the whole quotation.
  • I could never write "Jaws" today. Sharks […] don't hold grudges. (Author Peter Benchley)
  • (If you'd like to know what the rest of that quotation says, you'll have to Google it. Yes, that's how annoying an ellipsis can be.)

(2) Your readers don't know why you've trailed off.

When an ellipsis is used to show an unfinished thought, the thought is supposed to be clear to the readers. It is not uncommon (especially in emails) for writers to use an ellipsis to tail off without a clear reason. Often, the reason will be clear to the writer but not the reader.
  • I have rejected the offer for good reasons….
  • (Does this mean "I'm not telling you them", "I'll tell you them later" or "I've already told you them"? The writer knows. The reader doesn't.)
  • Let's meet up this afternoon….
  • (Does this mean "until this afternoon" or does it express suspense? The writer knows. The reader doesn't.)

(3) Implying you've more to say but not adding anything.

Some writers like to use an ellipsis at the end of a sentence. They just do. It's not an uncommon affliction.
  • Our proposal has been rejected….
  • Please give my apologies at the staff meeting….
As it can be used to show an unfinished thought, an ellipsis implies that the writer could have written more. Too often though, the writer has nothing more to add, and that makes the ellipsis annoying.

(4) Changing the meaning of a quotation with an ellipsis.

Be careful not to change the context or even the entire meaning when removing words from a quotation.
  • No country can really develop…. (Nelson Mandela)
  • (Original: "No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated." Be aware that removing words can remove important context.)
  • I'm not a Christian for your benefit. I'm a Christian for … my business. (Actor John Schneider)
  • (Original: I'm not a Christian for your benefit. I'm a Christian for my benefit, and how I walk my walk is my business.)

Key Points

Use an ellipsis:
  • To keep your writing succinct by removing redundant words from a quotation.
  • To show an unfinished (but obvious) thought.
  • To create a pause for … effect.
  • To tail off into silence…. [Tumbleweed rolls past.]
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