ellipsis orthographic sign

How to Properly Use an Ellipsis

From Word Genius

You likely see this form of punctuation all over texts and emails, but the usage has changed over the years. An ellipsis (…) is also known as a “suspension point” or even just “dot-dot-dot” if you’re feeling casual. Here’s when and how to correctly use an ellipsis in writing.

Point Out an Omission

The word “ellipsis” comes from the ancient Greek term élleipsis, which translates to “omission.” One of the primary functions of an ellipsis is to indicate words that have been excluded from a text.

Take this longer passage from Suzanne Collins’ bestselling 2008 novel, The Hunger Games:

The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

In a review or essay about the book, a writer could cut this passage down significantly using an ellipsis:

The rules of the Hunger Games are simple…. The last tribute standing wins.

Why would a writer want to leave out words from a quote? Perhaps they want to emphasize a specific section of the passage. Or the omitted words would make the selection harder to read or understand. Or they’re irrelevant to what is being discussed. Or the writer has a strict word limit to follow. As long as the ellipsis is included, the reader knows they’re getting abridged information.

Indicate an Incomplete Thought

An ellipsis can also show a thought trailing off in more casual writing or character dialogue. Here are a few examples:

Sheila wondered, “What did I have for breakfast…?”

“The will … is in … my desk drawer….” Gerald gasped.

“I was wondering … if you would go with me to prom?” Marta asked.

These could be used in fiction or informal writing to show the character’s mood. The ellipsis in these situations creates suspense, drama, hesitation, or shows confusion. Note in the first and second examples, an additional punctuation mark is needed to close out the clause after the ellipsis.

Spacing

To space or not to space? That is the question when it comes to ellipses (the plural of ellipsis). Some style guides say it’s fine to put a space between every dot in the ellipsis [. . .]. Others will say putting all three dots together (like a three-letter word) is correct […]. 

The same is true of spaces on either side of the ellipsis. Is it correct to include a space on either side of the dots? One the right side only? Or no spaces at all? 

“I think I won’t go … I feel ill.”

“I think I won’t go… I feel ill.”

“I think I won’t go…I feel ill.”

Any and all of the above styles are acceptable. Just be consistent when writing. For example, don’t switch between spaces and no spaces in the same document. Instead, pick a format and stick with it. Or better yet, choose your favorite style guide and let it lead you. (We follow AP Style on Word Genius, which calls for spaces before and after an ellipsis, as in the first example above)

One final question: How many dots are there in an ellipsis? Answer: There are always three. But, if you put an ellipsis at the end of a sentence, you need an extra dot for the period. That means the ellipsis would end up looking like four dots.

With his last breath, John said, “Tell my wife I love her….”

Overusing Ellipses

Like any punctuation mark, it’s possible to overuse ellipses. Remember, this mark is used primarily for omissions and pauses. In other circumstances, consider an em dash, a comma, a semicolon, or just a good old-fashioned period.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.