How to use the ellipsis

The punctuation mark can be tricky even for veteran writers. Follow these rules to use the oft-abused characters correctly.

In a world of texting and snapchatting, everyone is trying to say more with less.

We abbreviate, we truncate, we punctuate—all to communicate using the fewest characters.

In my own texting, I use ellipses excessively: “While I’m thinking about it … can you please check that link.” “Doctor’s appointment …10 a.m. … Wednesday.”

I’ve even caught myself misusing the ellipsis at work. Wait a minute, did I just write: “I can’t make today’s meeting …too many other meetings …can we reschedule?” in an email to my boss?

My overuse of this punctuation mark in my personal writing has made me curious about the rules for the use of the ellipsis in formal writing. Here’s what I’ve found. (Examples are taken from the works of William Shakespeare.)

An ellipsis is a series of three dots (…) generally used to indicate omission of one or more words, lines, paragraphs or other information from quoted material:

“Two households … In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”

In general, an ellipsis is not needed when the first part of the sentence is deleted:

January 2005 was “the winter of our discontent.”

Ellipses are not necessary at the beginning and end of the quotation if what you’re quoting is a complete sentence from the original:

“I learn in this letter that Don Peter of Arragon comes this night to Messina.”

Please note that some style guides call for spaces between the dots (. . .), others opt for spaces around the dots ( … ), and still others specify putting spaces around and between the dots ( . . . ).

Additional punctuation should be used on either side of the ellipsis if it helps the reader make sense of the sentence or better conveys what has been left out:

“O for a Muse of fire! … And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

The sentence in which the ellipsis is used should be a grammatically complete expression and punctuated as such:

“Hamlet” begins simply with … “Who’s there?”

However, an ellipsis without a period can be used at the end of a sentence fragment to indicate that it is purposefully incomplete:

“If music be the food of love, play on … ”

Ellipses are also called suspension points when they indicate an interruption in thought. They may be used to “suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity.”

This is how I’ve been using them in text messages and on chat. Technically, this is a correct way to use ellipses—but I’ve gone too far.

Grammar Girl says this: “It is allowable to use ellipses to indicate pauses or breaks in the writer’s train of thought as you see so frequently done in email, especially where a break is meant to feel uncertain. Nevertheless (and this is a BIG nevertheless) most people who use ellipses in email overdo it—a lot.”

The Chicago Manual of Style weighs in with, “Interruptions or abrupt changes in thought are usually indicated by em dashes.

How about it, Ragan readers, have you been misusing the ellipsis?

Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor and a regular contributor to Ragan.com and PR Daily. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.

This article first ran on Ragan.com in Jan. 2016.

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