Ellipses

Definition

An ellipsis is a series of three consecutive periods known as ellipsis points ( . . . ) used to indicate where words have been omitted from quoted text, or (informally) to represent a pause, hesitation, or trailing-off in thought or speech.

Forming an ellipsis

There are two different styles for how an ellipsis is formed, and each is equally common. The more conventional way to form an ellipsis is to put a space between each of the three ellipsis points, as in: “There are many things . . . that you must learn.”
In modern writing, the spaces between these are often left out, leaving three ellipsis points right in a row: “There are many things that you must learn.” The advantage of this form is that it can be hard-coded as a single symbol in most word processors, meaning it will not be broken if it hits the margin of the page.
To create this second form on a computer running Windows, hold Control + Alt and press the “period” key. To create it on a Mac computer, hold Option and press the “semicolon” key. Some word processors will also create the symbol automatically when you type three periods in a row.
This guide has opted to use the first of these two versions. If your school’s or employer’s style guide does not require one over the other, use whichever style you prefer, but be consistent.

Spacing around an ellipsis

Most style guides recommend using a space on either side of an ellipsis, except for when it is adjacent to a quotation mark. For instance:
  • At the press conference, the president had this to say: “Today, we are forced to confront certain truths . . . that we are obliged to deal with.”
  • . . . [T]he committee recommends a minimum six-week suspension of the deputy commissioner,” the report concludes.
  • “If were able to get the wiring right, I could . . .” my dad muttered, trailing off.
However, it is very common to see no spaces on either side of an ellipsis, or a single space on one side but not the other. For example:
  • “I don’t think the decision today reflects the. . .opinion of most Americans.”
  • “I don’t think the decision today reflects the . . .opinion of most Americans.”
  • “I don’t think the decision today reflects the. . . opinion of most Americans.”
If you are writing formal, academic, or professional content, you should include a space on both side of the ellipsis; otherwise, use whichever style looks best to you, but be consistent. (In this guide, we’ll be adding spaces to both sides.)

Omitting text from a quotation

The most formal way ellipses are used is to indicate that some text has been omitted from a quoted sentence or passage. This is done to simplify a quotation, eliminating information that is not necessary for or important to the writer’s purposes. This usually occurs in the middle of an in-text quotation; it is more uncommon for an ellipsis to be used at the beginning or end of a quotation.

Omitting text in the middle of the sentence

Most commonly, the ellipsis is used to bridge two parts of the same sentence by omitting extraneous information in between. When this is the case, we simply put a space-ellipsis-space in place of the text we wish to leave out. Let’s look at an original sentence, and then see how it might be abridged using an ellipsis in a quotation.
  • Original: “I don’t think the decision today reflects the honest, complete, and well documented opinion of most Americans.”
  • Abridged quotation: The president said of the senate’s vote: “I don’t think the decision today reflects the . . . opinion of most Americans.”
Note that we also omit any punctuation that originally surrounded the text that is being removed unless it has grammatical importance to the structure of the shortened quoted sentence. For example:
  • Original: “I’m sure of one thing in life, though not much else: I value family over all other things, especially in times of trouble, and I will never forget it again.”
  • Abridged quotation: The final passage sums up the protagonist’s view: “I’m sure of one thing in life . . .: I value family over all other things, . . . and I will never forget it again.”
Occasionally, an omission may span across two or more sentences. If the quotation is being presented as a single sentence, we simply use an ellipsis in the same way as above. If, however, the quotation divides into two complete sentences with omitted material in between, we use a period to terminate the first sentence (even if the original sentence has been shortened) followed by an ellipsis and the second quoted sentence. This is sometimes known as a four point ellipsis. If any letters need to be capitalized or made lowercase, or any words need to be changed to fit the subject-verb agreement of the newly abridged sentence, we use brackets to indicate that we’ve altered the original text. For instance:
  • Original: “Advocates from around the state are rallying around a new law aimed at reducing the number of roadside accidents in rural communities, which often have disproportionately high numbers of crashes due to low numbers of police on the roads. Still, there are some critics (especially in bigger cities) who feel the law will have a greater and more negative impact on commuters.”
  • Abridged quotation: Our local correspondent told us that “[a]dvocates from around the state are rallying around a new law aimed at reducing the number of roadside accidents. . . . Still, there are some critics . . . who feel the law will have a greater and more negative impact on commuters.”

Omitting text at the end of a sentence

Most style guides discourage the use of an ellipsis when an abridged quotation occurs at the end of a sentence, arguing that it is unnecessary to specify that there is more information beyond what you chose to quote. In this case, we simply end the quotation with a full stop and an end quotation mark. For example:
  • Original: “Despite the challenges, the correct course of action is clear, no matter what your political affiliation may be.”
  • Abridged quotation: Davidson maintains that “[d]espite the challenges, the correct course of action is clear.”
However, other style guides do recommend using an ellipsis after a quotation that ends a sentence. In this case, we end the sentence with a period, followed by a space, an ellipsis, and an end quotation mark. For example:
  • Davidson maintains that “[d]espite the challenges, the correct course of action is clear. . . .
Note that if a quotation is being used within an overall question, we place a question mark outside the end quotation mark regardless of whether we use an ellipsis or not:
  • Original: “Parents will know when the time is right to let their children explore on their own, without constant supervision.”
  • Abridged quotation (with ellipsis): But just how exactly are moms and dads supposed to “know when the time is right to let their children explore on their own . . .”?
  • Abridged quotation (without ellipsis): But just how exactly are moms and dads supposed “know when the time is right to let their children explore on their own”?

Omitting text from the beginning of a sentence

Generally speaking, it is not necessary to include an ellipsis if a quotation omits words from the beginning of a sentence—simply use an opening quotation mark:
  • Original: “We must all be careful not to be drawn into scaremongering over the issue.”
  • Abridged quotation: The prime minister was quick to ask the public “not to be drawn into scaremongering over the issue.”
If the middle of a quotation is used as the beginning of an overall sentence, we must be sure to capitalize the first letter of the first word quoted. In more formal, academic writing, we should indicate this change with brackets, but this is often not considered mandatory in less formal writing. Some writers also prefer to include an ellipsis before a change like this to make it absolutely clear that information was omitted, but it is not necessary and even discouraged by most style guides:

Using brackets around ellipses

If you are quoting material that already uses one or more ellipses, you should place your own ellipses in brackets. This will make it clear to the reader which ellipses are your own and which were already in the text. For example:
  • Original: Dixon said to Cassie, “This life, it’s so . . . unpredictable. I don’t know what strange, beautiful, wonderful things will come next.”
  • Abridged quotation: The main theme comes through in Dixon’s speech to Cassie: “This life, it’s so . . . unpredictable. I don’t know what [. . .] will come next.”
Alternatively, instead of using brackets around any added ellipses, we can also make a note of which ellipses were original or added in parentheses after the quotation (remember to put the period after this):
  • The main theme comes through in Dixon’s speech to Cassie: “This life, it’s so . . . unpredictable. I don’t know what . . . will come next” (first ellipsis in original).
or:
  • The main theme comes through in Dixon’s speech to Cassie: “This life, it’s so . . . unpredictable. I don’t know what . . . will come next” (second ellipsis added).

Informal uses

While shortening quoted material is the “official” use of the ellipsis, it is perhaps more commonly used in informal or creative writing to denote a pause, hesitation, faltering, or trailing-off of speech or thought. When used in this way, it’s quite common to eliminate the space traditionally used between the ellipsis and the word it follows. For example:
  • “Is Tom wearing. . . a pirate costume?”
  • “Everything is so . . . different.”
  • “We’re not. . . I didn’t. . . Oh, stop pestering me already!”
  • “Hmm, I’m not sure which I’d prefer. . .
Many people use an ellipsis as a sort of “stand-in” for a comma, creating a break in the flow of their writing. However, the suggestion created by an ellipsis used this way is that the speaker is unsure of or hesitant about what he or she is trying to say, or else has more to say but is reluctant or unable to finish the thought. For this reason, ellipses should be used sparingly, especially in written correspondence.
Quiz

1. Which of the following is the formal use for an ellipsis?





2. What are the conventional rules for spaces around an ellipsis?





3. In general, where in a sentence is an ellipsis usually used to indicate an omission?






4. When must a period be used with an ellipsis?





5. When are brackets used around an ellipsis?





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