Saturday 15 September 2018

How to Use Ellipses . . . Correctly

The symbol of three periods in a row ( . . . ) is called an ellipsis (plural: ellipses). There are two reasons you might use an ellipsis. In journalism or academic writing, you can use an ellipsis to show where you’ve left words out of a quotation. In narrative or dialogue, you can use it to show a pause or a trailing off.

Some style guides distinguish between these two uses of ellipses by calling the second suspension points. But most dictionaries consider the two terms synonymous (suspension points as a synonym for ellipsis is used more often in the UK).

Ellipses in Quotations

You can replace any word or words in quoted matter with ellipses, provided you don’t twist the meaning of the original. The edited quotation should still follow grammatical logic; that is, it should read like a plausible sentence or paragraph.

Original quotation:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Quotation with ellipses:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its . . . mission: . . . to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Photo of Star Trek's Enterprise

Ellipses in Narrative and Dialogue

In narrative and dialogue, an ellipsis is a moment of silence. It usually implies there’s something left unspoken.

  • “Well, if you want . . . ”
  • “Well, if you want.”

The first example could be the prelude to a suggestion or invitation. The second is more like a dismissal; you can picture the speaker shrugging.

Ellipses can be used when a narrator or speaker is trailing off, hesitating, or pausing for dramatic effect.

  • Holmes tapped his chin with a finger, murmuring, “I wonder . . . ”
  • Ratu made a face. “It feels . . . gooey.”
  • Astrology has all the answers . . . if you believe in that sort of thing.

When Not to Use Ellipses

The last example would also work with a comma or a dash instead of an ellipsis. If you find yourself overusing ellipses (which is easy to do), consider whether alternatives might be just as—or more—effective.

  • “No . . . I haven’t always been a pirate.”
  • “No. I haven’t always been a pirate.”
  • “No.” Shih turned her narrowed gaze out to sea. “I haven’t always been a pirate.”

In the first example, the ellipsis softens the no, drawing it out. In contrast, the second no is quite definite. The third uses action to convey a lengthy pause without any of the uncertainty implied by an ellipsis.

If you want to show broken dialogue, you’re probably better off using a dash. (Read all about the dash in How to Use Dashes.) Remember, an ellipsis indicates a period of silence.

  • “I think . . . Never mind.”
  • “I think— Never mind.”

The pause in the first example suggests the speaker is unsure of their conclusion: they hesitate, then change their mind. In the second, they catch themselves, thinking better of what they were about to say. The ellipsis is a pause; the dash is more like a glottal stop. Try reading both examples out loud.

Interrupted dialogue almost always requires a dash.

  • “Whatever you do, don’t touch that—” Boom!

Ellipses are a good choice for showing hesitant, uncertain speech.

  • “If . . . if you think you might like to . . . I mean, if you’re interested . . .”

But rapid, broken speech is better conveyed with dashes.

  • “You—! How dare you! I— I—” he sputtered.

And stuttering is best shown with hyphens.

  • “M-my t-t-toes are freezing!”

You can also use ellipses to show garbled or inaudible speech.

  • Pressing an ear to the vent, Letty heard, “. . . Make our move tonight. The old lady . . . never suspect.”
  • “Mayday, Mayday! This is . . . We are under attack! . . . Appears to be . . . giant squid. Repeat, giant—” kkssht.

If you want to redact a word for the sake of discretion, use a 2-em dash.

  • Lady A—— is at the centre of a most shocking scandal.
  • On the sound system Prince was crooning, “You sexy motherf——”

Spacing and Ellipses

There are different schools of thought on how to space ellipses. In this post, I’ve been following The Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends spaces before, between, and after the dots. The only problem with this style is that sometimes the ellipsis breaks over a line and you end up with a lone dot or two hanging at the margins of your text. To avoid this, you can insert non-breaking spaces between the dots.

Not everybody follows Chicago on ellipses. Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style, calls Chicago’s spacing “a Victorian eccentricity.” He prefers thinner spaces, ones that vary with the size and weight of the font. And the AP style guide likes to save room by using no spaces at all.

For most people, the easiest choice is to use the ellipsis glyph, or symbol, included in most fonts. In Word, three periods typed in a row are automatically changed to an ellipsis symbol; as a single glyph, it won’t break over lines. You’ll usually want to put a space before and after (but see the next section for exceptions).

Here’s what different approaches look like in the Times font:

  • Chicago style: “Yeah . . . I guess.”
  • AP style: “Yeah ... I guess.”
  • Word glyph: “Yeah … I guess.”

Punctuation With Ellipses

The “space on either side of an ellipsis” rule sometimes gets bent when other punctuation is involved.

In quotations (as opposed to dialogue or narrative), a period may be included to show the end of a sentence, creating a row of four dots. Note that there is no space between the final word and the period.


  • In the words of BeyoncĂ©, “The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens.”

With ellipses:

  • In the words of BeyoncĂ©, “The reality is: sometimes you lose. . . . You’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. . . . It happens.”

(Note that you’re is capitalized in the second version.)

This four-dots convention does not apply to sentences that are trailing off or deliberately left incomplete. So in dialogue and narrative, don’t use periods with your ellipses.

  • “I’m not sure . . .”
  • With friends like these . . .

Note in the first example the lack of a space before the closing quotation mark. With other punctuation, keep the usual spaces around the ellipsis.

  • “Are you . . . ?”
  • “No . . . ,” he said slowly.
  • “Oh! . . . Okay.”

Medieval illumination detail featuring a thoughtful monkey

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