You can use it for omission or hesitation, but is it too annoying?
People often ask how to use ellipses, those little dot-dot-dots you often see in email messages. For example, Mitra from Michigan asked, "When is it appropriate to use '...' in writing? People use it all the time, and it seems like a way to make your writing more informal and conversational, as if you were pausing. Can you also use [the dot-dot-dot] for formal writing?"
The answer is that you can use ellipses in formal writing in other ways, and you can occasionally use an ellipsis as Mitra described in his email, but you shouldn't overdo it.
Using an ellipsis to show an omission
In formal writing, the most common way to use an ellipsis is to show that you’ve omitted words. For example, if you're quoting someone and you want to shorten the quotation, you use ellipses to indicate where you've dropped words or sentences.
Here's a quote from the book "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens: "I cannot help it; reason has nothing to do with it; I love her against reason."
Now far be it from me to edit Dickens, but if I were a journalist under a tight word limit looking at that quotation, I'd be tempted to shorten it to this: "I cannot help it . . . I love her against reason." That middle part—“reason has nothing to do with it"—seems redundant, and taking it out doesn't change the meaning. Dot-dot-dot and it's gone, which saves seven words. Clearly, literature and journalism are not the same thing.
Here’s another example from a "Rolling Stone" review of the movie "The Green Knight": "Like all good medieval dramas, it has its share of hallucinogenic weirdness—talking foxes, loping giants, ghostly maidens—and ends not with a bang but with a magnificently mournful sigh."
If I wanted to quote the review, and I had limited space, I could use an ellipsis to shorten the quotation by omitting the examples about foxes, giant, and maidens, and write, "Like all good medieval dramas, it has its share of hallucinogenic weirdness . . . and ends not with a bang but with a magnificently mournful sigh."
Don’t use ellipses to change the meaning of a quotation
It’s wrong to use an ellipsis to make even a subtle change to the meaning of a quotation.
Integrity is essential when using ellipses this way. It's acceptable to tighten a long quotation by omitting unnecessary words, but it's important that you don't change the meaning. For example, in the "Green Knight" quotation, you shouldn't remove the words "medieval" or "hallucinogenic" because "medieval dramas" aren't the same thing as just "dramas," and "hallucinogenic weirdness" isn't the same thing as just "weirdness."
The email ellipsis
Now, on to the other use of ellipses that you frequently see in email: the ellipsis that’s used to indicate a pause or a break in the writer's train of thought.
Many people have written to me to say they find this kind of use annoying, but a number of style guides say that the ellipsis can be used to indicate a pause or falter in dialogue, the passage of time, an unfinished list, or that a speaker has trailed off in the middle of a sentence or left something unsaid. (1, 2, 3, 4)
For example, The Chicago Manual of Style states, "Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity." The Manual also contrasts ellipses with dashes, which it says are better for interruptions or abrupt changes in thought than ellipses. (5)
So, it is allowable to use ellipses to indicate pauses or breaks in the writer's train of thought as you see so frequently done in email, especially where a break is meant to feel uncertain. Nevertheless (and this is a BIG nevertheless) most people who use ellipses in email overdo it—a lot.
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. To quote the book "Grammar for Dummies," "Using ellipses in this way can get annoying really fast." (4)
The author of another book, "Punctuate it Right," feels this way about writers who use ellipses to imply that they have more to say: "It is doubtful that they have anything in mind, and the device seems a rather cheap one." (1)
So, use ellipses to show hesitation or a trailing off of thoughts if you must, but use them sparingly, and know that although it's grammatically correct, it's considered by some to be annoying and cheap.
Finally, there are some other special circumstances where ellipses seem to be allowed.
The comic strip ellipsis
I wouldn't consider this formal writing, but comic strip writers have been known to use ellipses instead of periods. I'm speculating here, but it seems as if the ellipses are being used as a way to draw you into the next frame—as if they are saying, "Keep going; there's more to come." For example, Charles Schulz used ellipses instead of periods at the end of sentences in "Peanuts."
The gossip and show business column ellipsis
Next, I was surprised to see that The AP Stylebook allows the use of ellipses for what they call "special effects": The stylebook states, "Ellipses also may be used to separate individual items within a paragraph of show business gossip or similar material."
Some famous newspaper writers have used ellipses in this way instead of periods to separate their rambling thoughts. Larry King heartily used ellipses in his "USA Today" column, as did Herb Caen in his "San Francisco Chronicle" column. In fact, Herb Caen is reported to have coined the phrase “three-dot journalism” to describe such writing, and he was so beloved in San Francisco that when he died the city named a street after him—and included an ellipsis in the name. (6)
How to make an ellipsis
Now that you know how to use ellipses, you need to know how to make them. An ellipsis consists of exactly three dots called ellipsis points—never two dots, never four dots—just three dots.
How you actually make the ellipsis is a matter of style. The Chicago Manual of Style puts spaces between the dots and the AP stylebook doesn't, (2, 3) so check whichever style guide you use or if you're writing for yourself, decide what you like and be consistent in your use.
One thing that is important is that you never want your ellipsis points to get broken up so they span two lines. Typesetters and page designers use something called a thin space or a non-breaking space that this from happening, (7) and most fonts also have an ellipsis symbol you can insert. But for everyday purposes, it's fine to use regular periods with or without spaces between them. Just make sure your dots don’t end up on two lines.
Also, usually there is a space on each side of an ellipsis. The ellipsis is typically standing in for a word or a sentence, so just imagine it's a single word itself, and then it's easy to remember to put a space on each side.
If you're omitting something that comes after a complete sentence, meaning that your ellipsis has to follow a period, put the period at the end of the sentence just as you normally would, then type a space, and then type or insert your ellipsis. Again, you're treating the ellipsis as if it were a word: the first word of the next sentence. This will result in four dots in a row but this is not a four-dot ellipsis—there's no such thing. It is a period followed by a regular three-dot ellipsis.
Examples of ellipses with other punctuation marks
Ellipses at the beginning and end of quotations
Most style guides don't call for an ellipsis when you omit something at the beginning or end of a quotation, but occasionally you need one. For example, if you leave out something at the beginning of a sentence, but your remaining quotation starts with a capital letter, you need an ellipsis to show the reader that the quotation is beginning in the middle of the original sentence.
Aardvark said, “. . . Squiggly never caught a fish.” [Perhaps the original quotation was “Even though he was on the lake all day, Squiggly never caught a fish.”]
Ellipses with question marks and exclamation points
“Where did he go? . . . Why did he go out again?” [Material is removed between the two sentences]
“Where did he go . . . ? Why did he go out again?” [Material is removed before the first question mark. Note the space between the last ellipsis point and the question mark.]
Treat exclamation points as you would question marks.
Ellipses with commas and semicolons
“Aardvark went home, . . . and Squiggly decided to meet him later.”
“Aardvark went home . . . ; Squiggly would meet him later.” [Note the space between the ellipsis and the semicolon.]
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.