How to Use Ellipses Incorrectly and Correctly

Do you like using ellipses? Are you sure you’re using them correctly? Are you afraid of using them because you’re not sure? If so, this post was written especially for you.

I’m seeing a lot of ellipses these days. I’m editing a book for a client who frequently uses them, and I recently received a brochure that uses ellipses in a letter to the reader. Since ellipses are not commonly used punctuation marks, I did some research to refresh my memory of their use. Here’s what I found.

What Are Ellipses?

An ellipsis is the three dots or periods usually used to indicate missing words from a quotation. Ellipses is the plural version of ellipsis and indicates multiple such marks—not the multiple dots that form one ellipsis.

When those three dots are used to indicate faltering or interrupted thoughts, the punctuation mark is sometimes called a suspension point. The fact there is disagreement on what to call the punctuation mark is a clue to how tricky its proper use can be. Some people straddle the fence and use both terms interchangeably.

There is also disagreement among styles guides about how to create these punctuation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) recommends putting a space between each dot and before and after the mark itself. The Associated Press Style Guide (AP) recommends no spaces between dots and using a space before and after the mark.

  • Chicago: . . .
  • AP: …

In my writing I generally follow the Chicago Manual of Style, so in this post I’ll follow Chicago’s recommendation.

The Incorrect Use of Ellipses

I often see people use ellipses in place of commas or em dashes when they want to emphasize something. The brochure I recently received is a good example.

“Our training is committed to giving you the confidence you need…and deserve.”

The sentence actually breaks two style guide rules: using an ellipsis in place of a dash for emphasis and not placing a space before and after the ellipsis.

People who use an ellipsis to build suspense or emphasize a point are probably in the camp that use punctuation as pause marks (For more information, see my Do You Breathe When You Punctuate post.) If so, they are merging the use of ellipses to emphasize into the usage of commas and dashes. (If using dashes for emphasis is foreign to you, check out my When to Use the Dash post.)

The Correct Use of Ellipses

Both CMS and AP say there are two primary uses for ellipses:

  • Indicate words have been omitted in a quotation
  • Indicate hesitation in speech or writing

Ah ha! you say. Ellipses can be used in place of dashes! Well, yes if the hesitation is to indicate faltering thought or confusion. If you want to emphasize words, however, both CMS and AP recommend using dashes. Using the brochure example above, would you agree using the dash as shown below makes a stronger impression?

“Our training is committed to giving you the confidence you need—and deserve.”

Indicate Words Have Been Omitted in a Quotation

The most common use of ellipses is to indicate where words have been omitted in quoted material. Using an ellipsis for omitted words in the middle of a quoted sentence is pretty simple. Begin the sentence normally, replace the omitted words with an ellipsis, and continue the sentence.

When omitting words at the beginning or end of a sentence or paragraph, how to use ellipses correctly get a little complicated. One rule of thumb to follow is to keep a space between periods and each ellipsis. The period is used to end the abbreviated sentence —regardless of whether the original sentence ended there. Another rule of thumb is to capitalize the first word of an abbreviated sentence even if you omitted the first part of the original sentence. Confused?

In the example below, Abraham Lincoln’s entire Gettysburg Address (all 271 words) is shown verbatim. See how the italicized words in the first quotation are replaced with ellipses in the second, abbreviated quotation using CMS guidelines.

Original

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With Ellipses

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation . . . dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war.  . . . [and] are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field . . . for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  . . .

“. . . We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Notice even with ellipses each abbreviated sentence is still a complete sentence. This is important—unless you are going for a special effect with quoted material—be sure your sentences make sense to the reader. Also note that when the end or beginning of a paragraph has been omitted, an ellipsis is used to indicate the omission. A paragraph indentation is used to indicate the beginning of a paragraph has been omitted.

Finally, be very careful you don’t change the meaning of the quotation when you omit words from the original.

Indicate Hesitation in Speech or Writing

A less common use of ellipses (or suspension points as CMS calls them in this usage) is to suggest the halting speech used by someone confused or insecure.

“You mean . . . I don’t . . . that can’t be right!” exclaimed Martha.
George sighed, “I suppose . . . if the boss really said so . . . I’ll get these reports done tonight.”
“Sometimes,” Ralph murmured, “the music just carries me …”

If you avoided using ellipses for fear of displaying grammatical ignorance, I hope this post gave you the knowledge you needed. If you use ellipses to set off a word or phrase for emphasis, I hope you’re suitably chastened. And if this post did nothing but confirm your knowledge of ellipses, I hope you got a chuckle when reading the “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” line in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I know I did.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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5 Responses to How to Use Ellipses Incorrectly and Correctly

  1. “People who use an ellipsis to build suspense or emphasize a point are probably in the camp that use punctuation as pause marks (For more information, see my Do You Breathe When You Punctuate post.)”
    -Don’t generalize, at least not with negative statements. If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

    You’ve got more than a few ambiguous sentences and capitalization errors.
    If you want to advertise your services or help people by correcting them, do it kindly and do it correctly. For their sake.

  2. Brent Scheihagen

    I found your article to be one of the most succinct and well-written articles about the use of ellipses – and the only one to point the visual difference between style guides. (MLA does it like this, correct? […])

    The above comment struck me as strange. There was nothing negative about your explanation; it simply pointed out how the ellipsis was misused and how the sentence is better served by a dash. Very strange …

    • Hi Brent. Thanks for your comments. I don’t have the MLA handbook, but from what I see online, it looks like MLA recommends putting one space between each point in the same way that Chicago does it.

  3. I was reading your website on ellipsis quotes and I was wondering if you can help me a little. I was wondering you could tell me if I used an ellipsis quote correctly? Here is my sentence: According to Elliot Rosewater, historian for the library system at the University of California at Berkeley in his article on the 1950s, the actor James Dean Changed American culture by suggesting that life should be lived “spontaneously and without thought” (15).