Grappling With Grammar - Ellipsis

Anybody out there remember Barbara Cartland? She wrote over 700 romance novels, most of which were historical and featured very young, virginal heroines. And every one of those heroines spoke in . . . breathless . . . tones . . . of . . . voice. Barbara was truly the queen of the ellipsis.

An ellipsis is a series of three periods with spaces between them (. . .) inserted into your text. The main use of ellipsis is to mark where you’re omitting a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, ellipsis was often used when a writer intentionally omitted a specific proper noun, such as a location: "Jan was born on . . . Street in Warsaw."

An ellipsis may also imply an unstated alternative indicated by context. For example, when Count Dracula says "I never drink . . . wine", the implication is that he does drink something else.

In reported speech, the ellipsis is sometimes used to represent an intentional silence, perhaps indicating irritation, dismay, shock or disgust. In news reporting, it is used to indicate that a quotation has been condensed for space, brevity or relevance.

One of the uses of ellipsis that you frequently see is to indicate a pause or a break in the writer's train of thought. Though many people disagree with this usage, a number of style guides say that ellipsis can be used to indicate a pause or falter in dialog, the passage of time, an unfinished list, or that a speaker has trailed off in the middle of a sentence or left something unsaid.

The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” The Manual contrasts ellipsis with dashes, which it states should be reserved for more confident and decisive pauses.

Comic strip writers have been known to use ellipsis instead of periods. They’re used as a way to draw you into the next frame—as if they are saying, “Keep going; there's more to come.” Charles Schulz always used ellipsis instead of periods at the end of sentences in Peanuts.

Most style guides call for a space between the dots. Also, usually there is a space on each side of an ellipsis. The ellipsis is typically standing in for a word or a sentence, so just imagine that it's a word itself, and then it's easy to remember to put a space on each side.

Most style guides don't call for an ellipsis when you omit something at the beginning or end of a quotation, but occasionally you need one. For example, if you leave out something at the beginning of a sentence, but your remaining quotation starts with a capital letter, you need an ellipsis to show the reader that the quotation is beginning in the middle of the original sentence.

Jonathan said, “Everyone else in town caught the flu, but Tammy didn’t catch it at all.”
Jonathan said, “. . . Tammy didn’t catch it at all.”

Ellipsis and punctuation:

When placing an ellipsis in the middle of a quotation to indicate the omission of material, use three periods with spaces before and after the ellipsis.

To be or not . . . is the question. (correct)
To be or not. . .is the question. (incorrect)

When placing an ellipsis at the end of a quotation to indicate the omission of material, use four points – a three-point ellipsis and a period. The ellipsis should follow a blank space.

To be or not . . . . (correct)
To be or not . . . (incorrect)

Ellipsis with question marks

“Where did she go? She just got here. Why did she leave again?”
“Where did she go? . . . Why did she leave again?”

“Where did she go, didn’t she just get here? Why did she leave again?”
“Where did she go . . . ? Why did she leave again?”

Ellipsis with exclamation points

“I don’t believe it! My luck just keeps getting worse and worse. These things always happen to me!”
“I don’t believe it! . . . These things always happen to me!”

“I don’t believe it, my luck just keeps getting worse and worse! These things always happen to me!”
“I don’t believe it . . . ! These things always happen to me!”

Ellipsis with commas and semicolons

Penny went home, to her house in the country, and James decided to call her later.
Penny went home, . . . and James decided to call her later.
Penny went home . . . ; James decided to call her later.

As much as you may love ellipsis, don’t allow the sweet lure of them to muddle your ability to write a complete sentence. To quote the book Grammar for Dummies, “Using ellipsis in this way can get annoying really fast.”

The author of Punctuate it Right feels this way about writers who use ellipsis to imply that they have more to say: “It is doubtful that they have anything in mind, and the device seems a rather cheap one.”

So, use ellipsis to show hesitation or a trailing off of thoughts if you must, but use them sparingly, and know that although it's grammatically correct, it's considered by some to be annoying and cheap.(I'm not one of them. ;-) )


Anonymous said...

Carol, we need you to write an ebook to be marketed for those of us who are punctuation/grammar impaired. I would be one of the FIRST to buy your book. Most of your lessons in grammar have been some of the first to filter through my fat little head but I have to admit I am still lost on the whole lay, laid, lain, lie business and don't get me started on colons and semi-colons. SIGH!!!

This is why we need an eBook to have handy at all times. Don't tell me that there are a TON of grammar books out there, I know that, but you keep it REAL. I can almost understand you most of the time.

Just a thought,


Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

This is incredibly useful, thanks! I agree that an eBook on grammar is on the cards :D

Christina Jean Michaels said...

I'm finding your grammar section really helpful. Thanks for posting!