Ellipses

I like to think I’m quite good at using the English language. I’ve written and read a lot, I’ve studied English and journalism, and I’m really pedantic. All of these should have made me nearly impervious to grammatical and punctuational mistakes. I still find myself struggling with certain aspects, however. The ellipsis is one of these.

In language an ellipsis refers to more than one thing. The first listed example in the dictionaries I have consulted is usually describing how it is used in English that isn’t necessarily written. For example:

I can see people jumping.

Ellipsis is used here to mean the lack of part of a sentence that would clarify the meaning. Between “people” and “jumping” you could place several words that would completely alter the meaning of the sentence. See e.g., “who are” or “by.”

I have done some research, but they haven’t.

Ellipsis is used here to mean the lack of repetition of a word or phrase or its equivalent. In this case it’s the lack of “done any research” as the equivalent of “done some research” at the end of the second clause.

These are both very handy in spoken English, and I think you’ll find you probably use them pretty well without even thinking about it. It’s the written form that I usually get incorrect.

The ellipsis is usually written as three dots (full-stops or periods) in a row, although sometimes it is seen as three asterisks.

It is used in quoted text, as with the examples above, to show that some part of the text has been removed, or to show that the speaker trailed off while talking. In non-quoted text it is used to show that the narrative has paused or is trailing off.

When ellipsis is used to show that words have been removed from the middle of a sentence you should absolutely always use three dots. Unfortunately there are disagreements between styles as to how you should space these dots. Some styles dictate that you should write the ellipsis as if it were a three letter word with no space between the dots, but a space on either side, while other styles say that there should be a space between each dot.

This is … an example of the first style. While this is . . . an example of the second style.

The styles that say the dots should be spaced also place importance on the fact that the dots should all appear on one line. Therefore, if you’re using the spaced style you need to make sure that there are non-breaking spaces between the dots so they all stay together.

If you’re omitting words from the end of a sentence then it is common to leave a space after the last word you’re quoting and then follow with the ellipsis, and then a regular full-stop, exclamation mark, or question mark after that depending on the sentence. Some styles have this as 4 dots in a row without spaces, while others space each one of the punctuation marks.

This is a valid way ….
If you are using a style that loves spacing . . . .
This is important …!
Is this helping…?

The above examples are all valid in different styles and under different guidelines.

If you’re omitting text after the end of one sentence then some styles will tell you to ignore any punctuation marks from the end of the sentence. Others will tell you to leave a space after the existing punctuation marks and then put in an ellipsis, and others will tell you to run them on straight after each other.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed … An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. … An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed…. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way

According to various styles I’ve looked at these are all potentially valid uses of the ellipsis. This varied usage makes it incredibly difficult to give an accurate guide to the general usage. If you’re writing for one particular style then you should probably read the section of the style guide that relates to ellipses. If you’re writing on your own blog or on a forum then you can pick a style to suit yourself, but it’s a good habit to stick with one style. It’ll help to make it easier for other people to read and understand what you mean.

I prefer the more succinct, un-spaced ellipsis, but it’s all down to personal preference. Just make sure not to only use 3 or 4 dots in a row at any time. And only 4 if the ellipsis comes at or after the end of a sentence. Try to preserve the meaning and tone of the quote, for example, if the quote is a question then you might want to try to keep the question mark in there somewhere.

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