You see it everywhere, but most people don’t know what it’s called or how to use it properly.
In fact, it’s often referred to as “dot, dot, dot” even though it does have a name. This punctuation mark is the ellipsis.
It is a series or row of three periods, which is usually used to indicate an omission. It may also be used to indicate faltering or interrupted speech or a pause.
Some punctuation marks are clear-cut while others cause a lot of confusion. Most of us mastered periods and question marks back in elementary school. Commas, semicolons, and ellipses aren’t as easy to master. As a result, many punctuation marks are frequently misused.
The ellipsis is one such punctuation mark. Most people don’t know the name of this punctuation mark, and those who do often confuse the singular and plural (just as many people confuse singular datum and plural data).
Luckily, the ellipsis isn’t nearly as confusing as the comma. It’s relatively easy to learn how to use it correctly and how to refer to it properly.
According to The Chicago Manual of Style:
An ellipsis — the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage — is indicated by ellipsis points (or dots)… Ellipsis points are three spaced periods ( . . . ), sometimes preceded or followed by other punctuation.
Singular and Plural
The word ellipsis is not plural. In other words, it refers to the three points, together, as a single unit, which is often colloquially referred to as dots or periods. Here is an ellipsis:
. . .
The plural of ellipsis is ellipses. This would indicate more than one set of three dots:
. . . . . . . . .
This punctuation mark may also be called a suspension point, points of ellipsis, or periods of ellipsis. But to keep things simple, let’s just stick with the word ellipsis.
The ellipsis is primarily used to indicate an omission. It can be an intentional omission, such as when you’re using a quotation but want to skip over a portion of it. Consider the following quote from Stephen King:
Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.
If space is tight, you might want to omit part of the quotation, but you still need to indicate a missing piece of text. You would use an ellipsis:
Fiction writers . . . don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.
Faltering or Interrupted Speech
The ellipsis may also be used to represent faltering or interrupted speech:
“Well, I . . . uh . . . don’t know,” she said.
We can also use an ellipsis to indicate a pause or unfinished thought. At the end of a sentence, an ellipsis represents trailing off into silence.
Using an ellipsis to represent a pause can get a writer into trouble. We tend to pause a lot in speech. Pauses give us a moment to collect our thoughts or add emphasis to what we’re saying. But in writing, a page peppered with ellipses wreaks havoc on the eyes.
The same applies to unfinished thoughts. A lazy writer might use ellipses to indicate, “and so on” or “et cetera.” In text messaging and social media, many people use ellipses where they believe the reader will implicitly understand what would be stated next. In professional-grade writing, we finish our thoughts, so ellipses used for this purpose should be rare.
However, when we are writing dialogue, an ellipsis can come in handy, especially if we want to show a character’s speech trailing off. Keep in mind, though, that ellipses, like exclamation points, should be used with caution and only when truly needed for emphasis. As a general rule, don’t use it unless you must.
Notation and Formatting
You’ll see ellipses formatted in two ways, either three points without spacing (…) or three points with spacing ( . . . ). In some cases, four points are used, but this is rare and not covered in this article.
In the U.S., an ellipsis is generally formatted with spacing between each ellipsis point: ( . . . ) per the most common style standards.
The Chicago Manual of Style warns against using ellipsis at the beginning or ending of any quotations. However, some writers will place ellipses at the beginning or endings of quotations to indicate preceding or following text that has been omitted. This ensures that readers are aware of omissions and prevents using quotations out of context.
Using Punctuation Marks Like the Ellipsis
If you want to ensure you’re using grammar and punctuation marks correctly and consistently in your writing, pick up a grammar manual or style guide. You’ll find that the more you write, the more frequently you come across grammar and formatting situations that are unclear. Grammar and style resources will be a great help.