What is an ellipsis? What is (…) called? Learn how and when to use an ellipsis in English with useful punctuation rules, example sentences and ESL infographic.
What is an Ellipsis?
Ellipses (singular: ellipsis) are a form of punctuation used to indicate excluded wording within a phrase or paragraph, or to indicate a pause in speech. They are most commonly seen as a series of three dots (. . .) though the exact number varies depending on the context of the quote.
When to Use Ellipses
(1) To demonstrate omitted material in quotes
Ellipses are commonly used to reduce the length of a quoted paragraph or speech by replacing extraneous information or details with the ellipsis sign (. . .). Omitted material can include anything from a single word to multiple sentences. This can be seen in the following example:
- “It wasn’t a big castle, but it was nice, with glass walls, twenty fireplaces, a marble staircase, and floors made of gold.”
Shortened Quote with Ellipses:
- “It wasn’t a big castle, but it was nice, with glass walls, . . . and floors made of gold.”
Note that removing the phrase “twenty fireplaces, a marble staircase” does not change the meaning of the quote. It is incorrect to use ellipses to omit phrasing in order to change the meaning of the quote.
- “I was looking for a red glass bird to put in my backyard.”
Incorrect Omission with Ellipses:
- “I was looking for a red . . . bird to put in my backyard.”
The sentence above is incorrect because it changes the meaning of the original sentence. While the original indicates the speaker searching for a decorative element, the shortened one suggests incorrectly that the speaker is searching for a live animal. A better use of ellipses would be:
Correct Omission with Ellipses:
- “I was looking for a . . . glass bird to put in my backyard.”
(2) To indicate uncertainty or pausing in informal conversation
Ellipses are often used in informal communication, such as text or online messaging, to indicate pauses where the writer/speaker would have naturally paused in spoken language. They work similar to em dashes (–) in this scenario, and can be used interchangeably to show pauses and brief stops in speech.
- “Umm . . . I’m not sure about that.”
- “I mean . . . not really.”
- “I don’t . . . I don’t think that’ s possible.” (Note that in this case, a similar effect can be achieved with: “I don’t–I don’t think that’s possible.”)
In both examples, the ellipses are used to indicate where the speaker, in his or her uncertainty, would have naturally paused while speaking.
This method is often employed in literary or creative writing to add characterization and nuance in a story, as seen in this example from the short story “Grace” in James Joyce’s Dubliners, in which both em dashes and ellipses are used to demonstrate hesitancy in the man’s speech cadence.
- “Tell me, Martin,” he said. “Weren’t some of the popes–of course, not our present man, or his predecessor, but some of the old popes–not exactly . . . you know . . . up to the knocker?”
How to Write the Dots
There are a number of ways in which to write ellipses, from the number of dots–three or four–to the formatting–open or closed. Should the dots have spaces in between ( . . . ) or not ( … )? In the United States, most punctuation follows either the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) or the Associated Press (AP) style.
Open or Closed
Ellipses should be open, according to both the Chicago style and the AP style. That is to say, ( . . . ) is allowed, but (. . .) is not.
Should there be spaces between dots?
According to the CMS all ellipses must have spaces before, between, and after. AP style, on the other hand, does not add spaces between the dots.
- “It is necessary to have . . . the proper precautions.” (Chicago style)
- “It is necessary to have … the proper precautions.” (AP style)
The Four-Dot Ellipsis
In most cases, ellipses consist of only three dots. A fourth dot is added, however, when (1) the omission occurs at the end of a sentence or (2) one or more full sentences are omitted.
- “There once was a princess who lived in a castle. It wasn’t a big castle, but it was nice, with glass walls, twenty fireplaces, a marble staircase, and floors made of gold. The castle was right on the ocean shore and every morning, the seagulls and dolphins came to say hello.”
Omission at the end of a sentence:
- “There once was a princess who lived in a castle. . . . The castle was right on the ocean shore and every morning, the seagulls and dolphins came to say hello.”
Omitting multiple sentences:
- “There once was a princess who lived . . . . right on the ocean shore and every morning, the seagulls and dolphins came to say hello.”
The difference exists, but is subtle.
In general, the best practice is to choose an ellipsis form (open, closed, spaced, no spaced) and be consistent with it throughout your work.
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