If the ellipsis has invaded your copy … read this

The author’s overuse of the ellipsis has affected not only her text messaging, but also her business writing. She explains when the punctuation should be used.

In a world of instant messaging and texting, everyone is trying to say more with less. We abbreviate, we truncate, we punctuate—all to get our message across using the fewest characters. In my own texting, I’ve begun to notice that I use ellipses excessively. “While I’m thinking about it … can you please check that link.” “Parent-teacher conference … 10 a.m. … Wednesday.” I’ve even caught myself misusing the ellipsis at work. Wait a minute, did I just write “Meeting canceled … Stacey was a no-show … Rescheduled for Friday” 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 ellipses in formal writing. Here’s what I’ve found. (Inspired by last week’s Google Doodle celebrating Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, the examples below are taken from A Christmas Carol. No Tiny Tim quotes, I promise.)

• Ellipses are three spaced dots (….) generally used to indicate omission of one or more words, lines, paragraphs, or data from quoted material. For instance: “Marley was dead, to begin with. … Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.” (This example has three dots for the ellipsis and one for the period at the end of the first sentence.) • In general, ellipses are not needed when the first part of the sentence is deleted. For instance, Scrooge “seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself.” • Ellipses are not necessary at the beginning and end of the quotation if what you’re quoting is a complete sentence from the original. For instance: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead.” • Please note that some style guides call for spaces between the dots (. . .), others call for spaces around the dots ( … ), and still others call for spaces around and between the dots ( . . . ). • 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. Although this is technically a correct way to use ellipses, I’ve gone too far. As Grammar Girl says:

“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 e-mail, especially where a break is meant to feel uncertain. Nevertheless (and this is a BIG nevertheless) most people who use ellipses in e-mail overdo it—a lot.”

The Chicago Manual of Style weighs in with, “Interruptions or abrupt changes in thought are usually indicated by em dashes.” For instance (back to Dickens):

“The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.” • Additional punctuation should be used on either side of the ellipsis if it helps the reader make sense of the sentence or better shows what was left out. For instance: “Business! … The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” • The sentence in which the ellipsis is used should be a grammatically complete expression and punctuated as such. For example: “When Scrooge awoke the next morning, he exclaimed … ‘the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will be.'” • However, an ellipsis and no period can be used at the end of a sentence fragment to indicate that it is purposefully incomplete. For instance, “And so ends my excessive use of the ellipsis …”

Laura Hale Brockway is the author of the writing and editing blog Impertinent Remarks. (Image via)

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