Ellipses

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What are they?

Ellipses are not random symbols in punctuation; they are a series of three consecutive dots with spaces between them (. . .), and they serve a specific purpose in writing.

When are they used?

Use an ellipse when there is an intentional omission of words. Consider the following example:

Original sentence:

All sellers of alcoholic beverages must honor the minimum drinking-age requirement or risk paying a fine.

Rewritten using ellipses:

All sellers of alcoholic beverages must honor the minimum . . ..

(In this case, the ellipses end the sentence. This is the only time four consecutive dots with spaces are used.)

An ellipse is used when there is a pause in speech or thought. Consider the following example:

Example: “I think . . . I have the winning ticket!

Use an ellipse for an unfinished thought. Consider the following example.

Example: “Geez, where on earth did I leave my . . .?”

An ellipse is also used when a sentence trails into silence. Consider the following example:

Example: “I thought it would was okay if . . .”

Using ellipses at the beginning, middle and end of quotation marks

It is preferable not to place ellipses at the beginning of a quotation. However, there are occasions where you need one. Consider the following example:

Example:

Original quote from astronaut, Neil Armstrong:

  • “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Rewritten using ellipses:

  • Armstrong said, “ . . . The Eagle has landed.”

(Ellipses are used before the quoted words because the sentence written is actually part of a longer quote, and the original beginning words are omitted.)

In writing, using ellipses to shorten a long quotation is acceptable as long as the meaning of the quotation is not changed. Consider the following example:

Example:

Original text from Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream:”

  • “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.”

Rewritten using ellipse:

  • “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree . . . came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their [slaves] captivity.”

(When using ellipses in the middle of a quotation to indicate the omission of text, use three consecutive dots with spaces before and after the ellipses. Note: the reader’s understanding of the content is not affected by the use of the ellipses. The brackets are only used to provide the context of “their.”)

There are some situations where using ellipses at the end of a quotation are used. Use ellipses when the words you quote constitute a complete sentence, but the words used are only part of a longer sentence. Consider the following example:

Example:

Original quote from Joseph Fort Newton:

  • “People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”

Rewritten using ellipses:

  • “People are lonely . . ..“

(The ellipses are placed after these words because the quote constitutes a complete sentence as presented although the quote is actually longer in its original form. Note: There are four consecutive dots used. One is a period to end the sentence, and the three consecutive dots with spaces between them are the ellipses.)

Ellipses in legal writing

Some rules apply for proper use of ellipses in legal writing because lawyers often quote other sources. Improper form might misrepresent another person’s work and could result in a legal liability.

Ellipses in comic strips

Ellipses are commonly used in written dialogue for comic strips. In this dialogue, ellipses are used at the end of one balloon when a character’s speech trails off and picks back up in another balloon with an ellipses beginning new dialogue. This is a way to build tension, incorporate dramatic pause and draw the reader to the next frame.

What forms of writing use ellipses?

Ellipses are used in professional writing, such as legal writing where lengthy documents are cited. In academic writing, ellipses mark an omission of original text and often place brackets around the ellipses to look like this [ . . . ]. Ellipses are a frequently in e-mails and informal writing because they indicate a pause, the passage of time or an incomplete list, as well as offer a conversational tone or indicate a feeling of uncertainty. Similarly, when constructing dialogue, ellipses are useful as well.

Ellipses are best used to indicate faltering thoughts, indicate hesitation or shorten lengthy quotes. Make sure to use them carefully as they are often confusing and are best used on a limited basis. Also, do not divide the three consecutive dots of ellipses – they are regarded as one unit.