Here’s a final exam question for you: how many punctuation marks in English grammar contain one or more dots?

Six is the answer.

1. Period
2. Question mark
3. Exclamation mark
4. Colon
5. Semicolon
6. Ellipse

For some bonus points, do you know how many dots in a row make an ellipse?

The ellipse contains three—yes, only three—dots. They are written as consecutive periods.

Not many writers are experts on the rules of the ellipse. Most, nevertheless, realize that some grouping of periods/dots in the middle of a sentence or at the end indicates a pause or reflection. With that in mind, they dot and space according to how they feel, as if the pause will be more or less emphatic relative to what they interpret as the right ratio of dotting to spacing. 

That’s a mistake!

Notably, the ellipse can be shown in different ways. Style manuals (Chicago, MLA, etc.) treat some aspects of the ellipse uniquely, so you’d reference the pertinent source if you were required to adhere to one set of guidelines versus another. If not, the rule for you is to choose a format and stick with it throughout your document.

If you’re selecting the style, you may either have no spacing within the ellipse or one space between the dots. With either format, one space appears before and after the ellipse within the sentence.

A. No space within ellipse: Words … words.

B. Spacing within the ellipse: Words . . . words.

My preference is the tight ellipse, or A, which I’ll use in the upcoming examples.

The ellipse serves the following purposes: to inject a pause within a sentence; to indicate a thought is incomplete or trailing off; or to show where content has been omitted from a quote.

A. To inject a pause within the sentence: I felt … uneasy about the entire process.

B. To trail off, in which case do not add the final period: I begged her and begged her to listen to me, but …

NOTE: Writers often pause and trail off so much that they weaken their messages. Such tactics should be reserved for informal writing and used rarely for effect. Otherwise, ellipses placed here, there, and everywhere are nothing but distractions.

C. To indicate content has been omitted from quoted material in the middle of a sentence: “Bob Smith … has been incredibly generous to our town,” the mayor said in her speech.

D. To indicate content has been omitted from quoted material at the end of a sentence, in which case do not add a space before the comma: “Bob Smith, only a three-year resident, has been incredibly generous …,” the mayor noted in her speech.

E. To indicate content is missing from the quote that ends the sentence, in which case add a space between the ellipse and the period: The mayor said, “Bob Smith, only a three-year resident, has been incredibly generous … .”

F. To indicate that at least one sentence has been omitted from quoted content, in which case add a space between the period of the prior sentence and the ellipse as well as between the ellipse and the next sentence: “Bob Smith, only a three-year resident, has been incredibly generous to our town. … His contribution to the hospital truly exceeded our expectations,” the mayor noted in her speech.

The plural form of ellipse is ellipses. Multiple ellipses may occur in the same sentence, but never side by side. One ellipse alone indicates any number of consecutive missing words or sentences.

If the rules of the ellipse seem overwhelming, then focus on the following:

1. The ellipse itself never contains more than three dots.
2. The dots within the ellipse never have more than a single space between them.
3. No more than a single space appears before or after the ellipse.
4. Multiple ellipses never appear right next to one another.
5. The ellipse should be used sparingly for pausing and trailing off.
6. Choose a format/style guide and stick with it throughout a single communication.

Oh, so simple … right?

My best to you,
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady


Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.