Punctuation is beautiful. Surely I can’t be the only person who delights in the slow curl and sudden dot of a question mark, or the swift and dramatic scar of an exclamation mark? Putting its beauty aside, however, punctuation is powerful. It turns rubbish into sense, it creates drama, and it brings order into chaos.
This week, allow me to introduce you to the ellipsis. (That’s the punctuation, not the rhetorical technique.)
Known colloquially as dot-dot-dot, the ellipsis (plural ellipses) comes from Greek and means “to leave out”.
It is a very useful tool in formal writing where you need to quote authorities, but also have a word limit. It is also powerful in creative writing, where it can create tension, atmosphere, or give insight into a character.
In formal writing, the most common use of the ellipsis is when there are several words, or sentences, missing from a quotation. They may be removed for clarity, or for space, but either way, removing those words doesn’t affect the meaning of the quotation.
An example from The Fish Course, by Susan Hicks:
“If you have the opportunity of buying live shellfish or crustaceans from a reliable source, preferably as the catch is landed at a fishing port, or else from a good fishmonger, you will find the taste noticeably superior to that of ready-cooked or frozen shellfish.”
This can be shortened to:
“If you have the opportunity of buying live shellfish or crustaceans from a reliable source . . . you will find the taste noticeably superior to that of ready-cooked or frozen shellfish.”
Nothing has been lost from the meaning of the quotation, and an ellipsis shows that I’ve edited the original text.
“If you have the opportunity of buying . . . shellfish or crustaceans . . . , you will find the taste noticeably superior . . . “
This alters the original meaning, and there are dubious ethics in manipulating the words in such a way. Good formal writing has integrity.
Creating antici . . . pation
Ok, so the title to this section is tongue-in-cheek, but an ellipsis can be used in creative writing as well. It can indicate an unfinished thought, as when Susan Hill uses it in this snippet from The Woman in Black:
“If you mean you think I should give up the job I’ve been sent here to do and turn tail and run . . . “
Or is can be used to show a sentence has been cut off. See how Daphne du Maurier uses it in Rebecca:
“Danny? What on earth . . . ” began Favell, but Maxim cut him short.
Stella Gibbons is one author who uses it to indicate the way a person speaks. Here, in Cold Comfort Farm, she gives Amos Starkadder a rural dialect loaded with pauses:
“Aye . . . I allus knows ’twill be summat about burnin’ . . . or the eternal torment . . . or sinners comin’ to judgement.”
Bram Stoker uses it chillingly when he makes Count Dracula say:
“I never drink . . . wine.”
The reader’s mind immediately leaps to what he does drink instead. As in the rhetorical form, the ellipsis draws attention to what is not said.
How to type an ellipsis
Many fonts have a special character ellipsis, which is useful when there is a danger of the dots running over the end of the line and onto the next. I’m using WordPress’s one here … . Generally, simply typing three full stops is sufficient. It should be
so that it looks like this . . . and not… .
Typesetters may use special thin spaces so that the dots are not as wide apart as when typed with an ordinary space between them.
Some style guides put the dots inside square brackets for formal writing [ . . . ] to indicate that the pause is not part of the original quotation. This is certainly a good idea if the original quotation contains ellipses of its own.
If you are cutting out the start of a sentence, then the ellipsis is preceded by the normal full-stop ending the sentence before. This will give you 4 dots in a row.
The sentence ends here. … the 3-dot ellipsis starts the next sentence, replacing some words. This is not a 4-dot pause, there is no such thing.
At the end of a sentence, the ellipsis is followed by a space and then the concluding punctuation:
This sentence ends with an exclamation mark after the words I am cutting out … !
You can have too much of a good thing . . .
The ellipsis can be very effective, but it must be used sparingly. Like seasoning, over use of any punctuation mark can spoil the dish. People who use ellipses too much, often instead of all other punctuation, lead me to think that the dots are showing the yawning emptiness inside the writer’s head. Gossip columnists love to use them to indicate the breathless and chatty nature of what they are writing – so beware!
Joanna is a copywriter and SEO content creator who can whip your words into order and help you create effective and compelling websites.