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Ellipsis: Do’s and Don’ts

July 29, 2011

In my last post, I talked about the correct way to make an ellipsis. If you missed it, you can read that info, preceded by a cute, little ditty, here. I also shared a fabulous tip on how to make an ellipsis correctly by using a shortcut on your keyboard—many thanks to Peter at the blog “9 Months with the Chicago Manual of Style.”

So now that we know how to create the ellipsis, when and how should we use it? It can correctly be used in writing—from formal writing to emails. The biggest tip? Just don’t overdo it.

Use an Ellipsis to Show Omission
An ellipsis is most often used to show that you have omitted words. If you are quoting text and want to shorten it, use an ellipsis to indicate where you have left out words, phrases, or even complete sentences.

For example, if I wanted to quote only a portion of Psalm 139:1-3, I would properly style an ellipsis like this: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me … you are familiar with all my ways.”

Do Not Use an Ellipsis to Change the Meaning of a Quotation
It is not correct (or ethical) to use an ellipsis to change the meaning of a quotation. Writers must be cautious of being ethical and writing with integrity, especially when quoting others. Make sure not to change the original meaning of text just to make it fit your argument or point of view in writing.

Use an Ellipsis as a Pause
It is correct to use an ellipsis to indicate a pause or trailing off of a writer’s train of thought. The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” Another option in writing is the dash, which should be used for more decisive pauses.

For example:

After seeing an elderly man stumble, Mary panicked, “Sir … are you okay … sir?”

After seeing an elderly man stumble, Mary exclaimed, “Somebody call 911—now!”

OR

My shopping list consisted of ice cream, brownies, chocolate syrup … well, you know, the usual fixings for dinner! (meant to be more conversational and humorous)

My shopping list consisted of ice cream, brownies, chocolate syrup—all the fixings for a great meal! (not as conversational; a more definite pause)

 

Tips

• If you are inserting an ellipsis after a complete sentence, put the ellipses after the period. Be careful that you do not style it to be four equally-spaced dots. An ellipsis is treated like a word with a space before and after.

For example: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. … you are familiar with all my ways.”

• If you are omitting words at the very beginning or end of a quotation, you generally do not need an ellipsis. However, if the word you are beginning the quote with begins with a capital letter even though it is in the middle of the sentence, you will need an ellipsis to show that you are starting the quote in the middle of the sentence.

For example: “ … Mary did not come to the party.” [The original sentence was “Just like you thought, Mary did not come to the party.”]

• If you remove text between sentences using question marks or exclamation points, style the ellipsis as you normally would between sentences.

For example: “Where did he come from? … Where did he come from Cotton-Eyed Joe?” [The original sentence “Where did he go?” was left out.]

• If you remove text before a question mark or exclamation point, then place a space between the ellipsis and the question mark or exclamation point.

For example: “Where did he come from … ?” [The original sentence was “Where did he come from Cotton-Eyed Joe?”]

• Style commas and semicolons the same as above with question marks and exclamation points.

For example: “Mary went home, … so Ben took a cab.” [The original sentence was “Mary went home, because she had a migraine, so Ben took a cab.”]

Hopefully, this sheds some light on the elusive ellipsis; but, as always with all things grammar, consult your style guide!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011 4:16 pm

    This post is an answer to prayer! THANK YOU!!! I am so glad to know the right way to use the ellipsis because I love to use it when I write. 🙂

    • August 4, 2011 8:20 am

      I love it, too! I definitely overuse the ellipsis AND the dash. But Peter’s tip about how to make it on the keyboard was a total lifesaver! I love learning from others! 🙂

  2. February 11, 2013 11:39 am

    I don’t know if it means anything to you, but I flckied through my English textbook to see what it said about trailing off dialogue, and there were several examples throughout it in which there was no punctuation used after the ellipsis just the speech mark. I’m also reading a book by Joseph Conrad at the moment and he does not put a full stop at the end of an ellipsis. I don’t use it very often, but when I do, I stick with three dots because anything else, to me, doesn’t look right.

    • February 11, 2013 12:44 pm

      Thanks for writing! Often, style manuals are different. AP is different than Chicago Manual Style, for example. Which sure doesn’t help with it comes to hard-and-fast rules! So always check your style manual for whatever you are writing for. If it’s to be published, each publisher will have a style manual, as well. Makes it tricky! 🙂

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