You may have used an ellipsis without being aware of what it is and its actual use in punctuation. For example, have you ever written a text or a sentence in your work-in-progress that just trails off? Maybe you don’t know what to say or maybe you were raised "If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all."
I guess I can meet you later…
If you got the above text message, would you think the person has something else to say but is holding back?
Did you know those three dots are called an ellipsis, and the above instance isn’t correct usage? The ellipsis has been hijacked much like the figurative use of "literally."
What is an ellipsis?
An ellipsis is three consecutive periods used as a punctuation mark in formal writing to denote missing or omitted text. For example, if you’re quoting someone but don’t need the entire text, put an ellipsis in place of the content you’re not including.
Technically, the ellipsis should have a space between each period as well as a space before and after, unless next to a quotation mark, where there is no space.
It’s used incorrectly today in text messages, emails, social media, and even in some blogs. Writers use it often to show their thoughts trailing off or hesitation.
How to use an ellipsis
Sometimes a writer wants to quote a part of someone else’s text or speech. An ellipsis shows where text was omitted, either before, in the middle of, or at the end of a sentence. An example is the best way to show you.
Let’s say you want to quote the principal of your local school who said:
- "We’ve determined positively, unequivocally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, using all facts and information available, understanding the importance of this decision, that we will need to build a new school within the next five years."
But you don’t want it be so wordy. You would shorten it with an ellipsis like this:
- "We’ve determined positively . . . that we will need to build a new school within the next five years."
Clearer and more concise, wouldn’t you say?
The English language is ever evolving
The ellipsis is now widely used outside of its formal or traditional purpose for a variety of reasons. Authors use an ellipsis to show a pause in dialogue or narrative, or they use it to show a character or narrator’s thoughts trailing off.
- She wasn’t angry with him . . . she was simply exhausted.
- His eyes welling, he said, "I’m not sure what to do . . ."
- The boy turned the corner and saw the bully . . . was this too big to handle on his own or . . . maybe it was time to take a stand?
Both writers and editors today treat the ellipsis as a style issue, meaning some prefer three consecutive periods with no spaces, and the rules for spacing before and after can also vary. Unless the writing is formal or you have a style guide with specific instructions, choose the style you like best and follow it consistently.
What do you think about the ellipsis? Do you use it as a pause for emphasis or maybe when your thoughts trail off? Some English purists decry this misuse of the ellipsis.
Whichever side you land on, consider using the ellipsis with caution. Much like overuse of an exclamation point, the ellipsis can annoy when used recklessly.