Grammar Hammer: And the Winner Is (Dot Dot Dot)…I’ve received a couple of questions on the proper use of ellipses. I thought I’d take a quick look at a few guidelines on using ellipses… correctly (yes, my dear grammarians, I know that’s wrong, but that’s the point).
First, let’s cover the basics. An ellipsis is a trio of periods (…) that serves as a placeholder for text. An ellipsis is three dots, except when it’s four. When using ellipses at the end of a sentence, yes, you need the fourth dot. It’s important to punctuate correctly. With other types of punctuation, just treat the ellipsis like any other word in the sentence.
Now that we know what it is, when do you use an ellipsis? The most common usage in formal writing is to show omission. This is especially true for journalists who are trying to save valuable real estate without losing the meaning of the quote. I like the example that Grammar Girl uses to illustrate this, using a quote by Charles Dickens: “I cannot help it; reason has nothing to do with it; I love her against reason.” If I’m on a tight deadline, I’m going to dot-dot-dot that to “I cannot help it … I love her against reason.” The middle phrase there, “reason has nothing to do with it,” is redundant to the sentence and I just saved seven words that I can use somewhere else.
In researching the rules surrounding the ellipsis, I found proper style references for comic book writers (which I loved, by the way, because I love comics that are well-written), so it seems there are rules for everyone when it comes to the ellipsis. The other most common usage of the ellipsis is to show hesitation or a trailing off of a thought. This is used more in informal writing and is one of those things that can be overused if you’re not careful. Think of it this way, dear writers, you have the uncanny ability to string together lots of gorgeous prose, so consider carefully whether or not you need to muddy the water with an ellipsis. To quote The Write Practice, “If you have a mental space cadet for a main character, you might want to tone down your desire to use those dots.”
For another look at a style manual on the ellipsis, I refer to my handy-dandy AP Style Guide to offer you this final tip: “Be especially careful to avoid deletions that would distort the meaning.”
Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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