Normal people don’t speak in complete sentences. They pause and stammer and vacillate and allude and do all manner of things which are very difficult to express in writing and punctuation. One of the least understood forms of punctuation is the ellipsis. (And just to get this out of the way, “ellipsis” is the singular form of the word, “ellipses” is the plural. This makes for awesome editing notes: “You need an ellipsis here.” and “Ellipses wouldn’t go amiss in this speech.” They both refer to the same set of dots, just expressed differently.)
The confusion about this punctuation mark is rampant. How to make them, how to use them, what they mean… What I’m going to expound on in this post is the way that I do them. Which isn’t just based on the way I like them best, it is actually the result of a fair amount of research, and style-guide scouring, along with a healthy dose of “that just looks right.”
We’ll start with how to make them. If you’re using Microsoft Word and type three periods in a row… (like I just did there, not that you got to watch it happen—take my word for it), it will default into a proper ellipsis. If you add a space between each of your three periods – . . . – it will not default, and will instead just give you three periods separated from the one another by a space. This will cause you formatting issues when you go to publish electronically or in print as it can split your punctuation mark across more than one line and obliterate the intention of using an ellipsis.
Side note, obliterate is a word we don’t use enough. Try to work it into a conversation tomorrow. I would, but I’m taking a plane across the country, and I don’t think the TSA is a big fan of that word. Moving on… The last (and easiest!) way to make an ellipsis on a PC is to press Ctrl, Alt, and the period button. And Ta-Da! An ellipsis will appear. (I don’t have a Mac, but I Googled how to make an ellipsis, and it says press Option and then the semicolon. Someone with a Mac feel free to try this and report back. If this info is wrong, I’ll correct the post.)
OK, now that you know how to create them, on to the very important question of how to use them. When you search online for how to use an ellipsis, the information tends to be dry and scholarly. They tell you that ellipses are used to indicate omitted words in a sentence, like when you’re shortening a quote: “Let the word go forth from this time and place…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” I used an ellipsis to omit the words “to friend and foe alike.” I didn’t change the meaning of the sentence; I just reduced the number of words in that sentence through use of an ellipsis. This is just one of the ways to use ellipses.
But when people speak, either in reality or in fiction, they tend to use ellipses in a less technical way. They’re letting their words drift off, or they’re struggling with the words they want to say, or they’re letting their pause act as an innuendo. (Maybe I do this all the time. Maybe…)
“I’m not late, exactly… I mean, I am… But not in the way you think…at least if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking.”
In that sentence (which was not a subtle notification to anyone in my life that I’m with child), you see the ellipsis in practice. The speaker is struggling with how to reveal her news to the listener. She’s hesitating, and into the voids in her vocabulary go the ellipses. When you’re reading this sentence, you’re seeing those ellipses and you’re hearing her hesitation. You can feel for her as she searches for the words. The ellipses give her speech greater meaning. They’re not just punctuation; they’re also description. They tell you wordlessly of her efforts to express herself. Sure, you could write the experience differently:
“I’m not late, exactly…” Mariah chewed on her bottom lip as she tried to force the words out. “I mean, I am…” Great, now she sounded like an idiot. “But not in the way you think…at least if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking.” She glanced up at him nervously, only to find that he was focused solely on making it to the next level in his video game.
But adding in more language to describe the scene doesn’t change any of the words she’s speaking. In fact, adding in more detail may in fact detract from the power of her hesitantly spoken words. The ellipses help you to distill your plot development down to its most critical facts. Less is more in a situation like this.
A word of warning, though. It’s very easy to overuse ellipses. Try to keep their use to a minimum. If you have one character who needs them to express herself, make sure you don’t paste that linguistic trait on to all of your other characters just because you’re in the habit. Choose the right, and most effective, moments to use your ellipses.
One of the biggest questions I’ve been asked in the past is how to utilize an ellipsis within a passage. Here’s what I recommend (as do the few style guides I’ve found that deal with ellipses in fiction). If the speaker is stumbling over his or her words while speaking, like “I…um…I just don’t…um…” then use no spaces between the ellipses and the words as this is all one sentence. If instead the ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence, or the speaker begins a new sentence after pausing, then put a space between the ellipsis and the next word. Example: “It’s just not fair… He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.”
Last tip: An ellipsis is three dots. Not two, not four. Just three. Don’t make your editor do find and replace to fix this. (I’ve done it, and I don’t recommend it.)
Thanks to Mina for suggesting this post. I hope it answered your questions. And if it didn’t, for Mina or any of you, drop me a note and let me know what more I can elaborate on.
Originally published March 26, 2014