Here’s how to use one of the most mysterious forms of punctuation
These days it seems ellipses are the default punctuation.
How often in emails do you briefly wonder what punctuation is appropriate, and then opt for those three mysterious dots instead? Indeed, ellipsis abuse is rampant in emails; in most cases the writer is using the “…” in error.
Don’t believe me? Google “ellipsis, abuse” and behold the myriad forums and blogs on the topic, complete with examples. Better yet, scroll through your email account and see these abuses for yourself.
“Most people who use ellipses in email overdo it—a lot,” Mignon Fogarty, author of book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, wrote on her blog Grammar Girl. “You should not replace all normal punctuation with ellipses. You should not allow the sweet lure of ellipses to muddle your ability to write a complete sentence.”
In fact, the ellipsis has only three purposes. One is a very specific and somewhat common purpose, another has a more novel intent and the third a slightly vague purpose. So why do some people use it so much?
“It is perhaps the most subtle and most mysterious form of punctuation,” explained an attorney friend, who is a self-identified ellipsis lover. “A period is just an end. Three periods aligned together, however, is a beginning, a continuation, something remains to be said …”
That sounds nice, but in 10 out of 10 emails he uses the ellipsis in error. Here’s how and, perhaps more importantly, where you should use the ellipsis. (And, by the way, the plural of ellipsis is ellipses.)
Vikings first used ellipses
By definition, ellipses indicate an omission; that reflects its origins.
Vikings first used the ellipsis, although then it was a rhetorical device and not three dots on a page. Scandinavians spoke Old Norse, a language that omits infinitive phrases and non-action verbs. For example, in Old Norse “He will loot and pillage” becomes “He loot and pillage.” Rhetorically, an ellipsis replaced “will.”
How to format the ellipsis
Although guidebooks advise varying mechanics for formatting the ellipses, here’s a rundown on how you should format the “…” when quoting someone.
1. Treat the ellipsis like a three-letter word and place spaces between words surrounding the ellipsis;
2. No spaces between the dots, the AP says.
3. Do not begin or end a quote with ellipses. If you’re quoting only part of this statement, “All living birds fly south every year” then don’t write, “… birds fly south …” and do write, “Birds fly south.”
4. If the ellipsis comes after a complete sentence then the three dots should follow a period. For example, “I often eat chalk. … It tastes nothing like antacids.”
William Shakespeare became the first widely known English writer to adopt the ellipsis, although, again, you won’t literally find it in his plays. Shakespeare wrote for the ear, not the page, so ellipses never appeared on paper; his were rhetorical.
The ellipsis first appeared in print in a 1588 translation of Andria by Maurice Kyffin, explained authors Olga Fischer and Max Nanny in the book The Motivated Sign. Centuries later the ellipsis is the scourge of email communication.
How should you use it?
In formal writing the most common reason for ellipses is to shorten a quoted statement. For example, in his 1978 book on the Vietnam War, Dispatches, journalist Michael Herr describes an artillery range. “It was at dusk, those ghastly mists were fuming out of the valley floor, ingesting light. The colonel squinted at the distance for a long time.”
Far be it from me to edit Herr, but let’s replace part of that description with an ellipsis. “It was at dusk … The colonel squinted at the distance for a long time.”
To save space or simply tighten up a statement, use ellipses to replace non-essentials, clunky language and redundancies. In Herr’s case, his description of the mists, though marvelous, is nonessential. Even after removing the two phrases the statement’s meaning remains intact.
“Integrity is essential when using ellipses in this way,” Fogarty said. “It's fine to use an ellipsis to tighten up a long quote by omitting unnecessary words, but it's important that you don't change the meaning.”
Movie critic Jeff Bayer knows this firsthand.
He once penned a review for the film Definitely, Maybe. Bayer wrote, “All the parts add up to the best romantic comedy of the year (so far).” It was a playful remark, considering few romantic comedies had come out by the time he wrote the review—hence the parenthetical afterthought.
However, one TV ad for Definitely, Maybe turned that into “Jeff Bayer of the Daily Herald calls it, ‘The best romantic comedy of the year.’” What did Bayer think of that?
“Yes, it was,” he said. “But there were almost no other films at that point.”
Beyond quotations, The Associated Press Stylebook gives a second, more novel reason for the ellipsis: to separate items within a gossip column or similar material.
The third use is to indicate a pause or hesitation in speech, perhaps to build suspense. Take these two statements, for example: “I like … no, I love the new copier” and “The boss surprised everyone with … pizza.”
The Chicago Manual of Style recommends this use of ellipses; the AP advises against it.
Replace ellipses with a dash for this purpose, says the AP. Under AP guidelines, the above examples looks like this: “I like—no, I love the new copier” and “The boss surprised everyone with—pizza.” The Chicago Manual says the em dash is too definitive and strong for this use.
Your choice, but whatever you do, stop replacing appropriate punctuation with ellipses. Remember: The ellipsis should never replace periods, commas, colons or semicolons, and rarely the em dash. The ellipsis has a purpose; use it for that purpose only.
If you’re among the abusers, pledge right now to stop using it so much in your emails. After all, all these ellipses make you look terminally indecisive.