A Note on Ellipses

Something’s been bothering me . . . ellipses. They’re everywhere now, aren’t they?

For those of you who are thinking, “Ellipsis . . . what’s an ellipsis?” Congratulations! You just used one in your lovely thought bubble. An ellipsis is a ‘dot dot dot’. Or, if you want to get all precise, it’s a ‘dot, thin space, dot, thin space, dot’. But that just doesn’t sound as good.

These ellipses have begun to show up in all sorts of unusual places. “But where is a ‘usual’ place for an ellipsis?”, I hear you ask. So let’s start there. 

1. Something is missing

The most formal and common use for an ellipsis is when something is missing. For instance, you want to convey the following message, from Terry Malloy:

“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

But you’re on a tight word count, so you’d like to get straight to the point. You may say:

“You don’t understand! . . . I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

It’s important to note that you need to be especially sure that you haven’t changed the meaning of the quote when you use ellipses in this way. It’s not a home-wrecker of sentences; more of a home tidier. Like a handy storage system that lets you keep all your stuff, but somehow have much more space.

2. Unfinished business

You’ll probably remember this one from children’s books. I had a teacher who would read out the “dot dot dot” at the end of a page, and we all shouted “IT’S NOT FINISHED!” back at her. Let’s investigate with another movie quote, this time from Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore:

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Now let’s imagine his friend streaked through the camp while he was trying to say this. He got a bit distracted halfway through:

“I love the smell of . . .”

The ellipsis denotes that he’s trailed off. This isn’t to be confused with being interrupted by, say, a fatal shot from the enemy:

“I love the smell of –“

If a dash is a grammatic emergency stop, an ellipsis is more like approaching a red light from afar — a gentle, responsible stop that doesn’t give your passengers whiplash.

3. Rhythm

So, sometimes your favourite author wants you to know that the speaker is having some difficulty — perhaps their mouth is full, or they just aren’t too sure of what they’re saying. Maybe they’re drunk.

“A census taker . . . once tried . . . to test me . . . I ate his liver with . . . some fava beans and . . . a nice Chianti.”

Now you can read that and imagine Dr. Lecter has a nice big mouthful of you as he says it. Or he’s had one too many Chiantis. Or he’s not very sure of the memory — I haven’t seen The Silence of the Lambs, but I’m pretty sure the guy is not of sound mind and probably falters mid-sentence a lot.

Great, now you know how to use an ellipsis.

“But, hang on, didn’t you say . . .?”

Yes, yes I did — ellipses have been hanging out where they shouldn’t be. They’ve been dodging curfew. Entering ‘no trespass’ zones. They’re everywhere.

It started with tone. People have taken the third use of the ellipsis to a new level. They read that and hear a pause in the speaker’s tone. So they use it when they want to show that they’re pausing.

“Wait . . . is that not allowed?”

Well, language is transient and ever-evolving. No, it’s not allowed in an academic essay (yet), but who’s to say what is and isn’t allowed in emails, on Facebook or in text messages? My only beef is, there are other punctuation marks that better fit the bill here. A comma would look lovely in that sentence, or a long dash. Even a full stop would work — in fact, it would make it all punchy and decisive. I love punchy and decisive.

But then people branched off! Some use ellipses to be friendly and informal:

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight . . .”

While others use them to be sarcastic — a signal that something has been left unsaid, and that something is mean and making fun of you:

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight . . .”

And some people just use them everywhere instead of any other punctuation at all:

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight . . . where will we meet . . . I’ll be getting off the train at platform nine and three quarters . . . so Leaky Cauldron would be great . . .”

And then it just descends into carnage, where even the simplest of rules are ignored:

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tonight . . . where should we meet ………… I’ll be getting off the train at platform nine and three quarters . . so the Leaky Cauldron would be great for me . … .   . …. .. !!. . .. ?”

Look, despite being a bit of a linguistic purist myself, I am all for the evolution of the written language. Writing used to be a formal thing, and now it’s not. I get it. But the point of writing is to convey a message. The reader has to know what you mean. If you start using ellipses in the place of all other punctuation, it loses meaning, and nobody will have any idea what you’re trying to say.

Okay, we’re not that thick, we will get what you’re trying to say. But you could say it so much better. I can’t sum it up more succinctly than Amanda Bumgarner did:

“While this isn’t a terrible cause for concern, it is important to keep in mind that punctuation symbols mean something! They aren’t just there for you to pick and choose whichever one you want. They all are used for different purposes, and as a writer it’s important to know what those differences are.”

I know that many of the people who use all these dots in their writing won’t consider themselves ‘writers’. But please, just for me — the next time you’re tempted to type out those three little dots, ask yourself, “Would a comma do? What about a full stop?” Anything but more ellipses.

What do you think? Am I taking those three dots a little too seriously? Leave me a comment, or tweet me @word_stomper.

If you absolutely must use an ellipsis, don’t forget to check out this lovely article by Grammar girl on how to correctly format your little dots. That link goes straight to page three of the article, where she talks about the correct number of dots and how to space them and all sorts of useful things.

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5 thoughts on “A Note on Ellipses

  1. “so.. lets see.. where were we.. ahh yes” i prefer 2 (sans space) sometimes, that sentence with 3 and the space just doesn’t seem right somehow!?

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  2. I’ve got to admit that I’m guilty of a lot of ellipsis overuse (for exemple, being tempted to slip them in just there). That said, I’m the kind of person who finishes most of their spoken sentences as though I’m about to start a new one, so I think it may be inescapable!

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