The Ellipsis and its Use
As an editor I've noticed a surprising rise in the use of the ellipsis in fiction writing and I decided it was time to address the issue. Besides, I've been having an ongoing (but good natured) argument with my friend Jamie DeBree about the best way to present them, and I was curious to see who's right. :-)
An ellipsis is a series of three periods that can be typed with spaces between them ( . . .) or no spaces between them (... )or inserted using an ellipsis symbol (…).
Most style guides call for a space between each dot but you want to make sure your ellipsis doesn't get spread over two lines. Typesetters and page designers will use something called a thin space or a non-breaking space to prevent this. To do this in Word, press Ctrl+Shift+spacebar at the same time where you want the non-breaking space.
If you prefer to have an ellipsis without spaces between the dots, rather than type the three dots and risk having one or two of them end up on the next line, you will find a ready-made ellipsis in the Symbols menu of Word.
There is usually a space on each side of an ellipsis. The ellipsis is normally 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 of it.
Although the main use of an ellipsis is to mark where you’re omitting a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage, it has become more and more popular as a device to indicate a pause or a break in the writer's (or character's) train of thought. Many style guides now say that ellipsis can be used to indicate a pause or hesitation in dialog, the passage of time, or that a speaker has trailed off in the middle of a sentence leaving something unsaid.
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.
The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.”
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
“What happened? I can't see over the crowd. Is that a fire?”
“What happened? . . . Is that a fire?” Information is removed from between the questions.
“Where are we going, are you sure this is the right way? Are we taking a detour?”
“Where are we going . . . ? Are we taking a detour?” Information is removed from the first question.
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!” Information is removed from between the sentences.
“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!” Information is removed from the end of the first sentence.
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.
Now we come to the confusing part. Because fiction uses ellipses for a different purpose, the format is also different. It is not subject to formal guidelines. Three dots followed by a space is usually appropriate.
“I don't know what to do. . .” he stammered” is a perfectly acceptable use of an ellipsis because it demonstrates the inability of the character to make up his mind. Pauses in text can be shown in the same way: “She was desolate. . . Her soul was barren, empty. . . The epitome of a broken heart.”
Notice that in the above examples there is no space between the last word and the first dot. And in the first example there is no space between the ellipsis and the quotation mark either.
“She wasn’t angry . . . she was just tired,” he told them. This case uses an ellipsis similar to what would be used in a piece of news writing, but it is understood that the character who is speaking is merely pausing for emphasis or thought. No words were omitted from the dialogue.
As much as you may love ellipses (ellipsis is singular, ellipses is plural), don’t allow the sweet lure of them to seduce you. Too much of anything is never a good thing and many readers find them annoying.
So, use an ellipsis to show hesitation or a trailing off of thoughts if you must, but use it sparingly, and whether you use spacing between the dots or not, the key to proper use of ellipsis is consistency.