Friday, April 5, 2013

GrammatiCats: Ellipses

You know, the ellipsis is like the Go-Gurt of English punctuation.  You tear off the top, put the three little dots in wherever there's a pause or some missing words, and squeeze factory-delicious pink bacteri-goo into your face.  It sounds absolutely foolproof.

Until you're writing out some momentous treatise one day, and you realize that you can't recollect whether there's spaces between the dots or on either side or whether you still need a separate, actual period at the end of the sentence, and suddenly it's like the tear-off tab isn't working, and you're trying to rip that sucker open with your teeth, and before you know it, the stupid little food-tube has Strawberry-Banana-Burst all over your self-esteem.

So let's grab a moisti-nap and clear things up.

Pinkie Rating: 3

First of all, we should get straight on the word itself.
  • ellipsis: a set of three dots, usually used to indicate pauses in speech or omitted parts of a quotation
  • ellipses: more than one ellipsis
  • ellipsis point or ellipsis mark: an individual dot in an ellipsis
(Don't let that ellipsis/ellipses thing weird you out, by the way.  We actually have a pant-load of hand-me-down words from Greek whose singular -is endings turn into -es to make the plural: thesis, crisis, axis, neurosis, analysis, metamorphosis, etc.  This one behaves in exactly the same way.)

Anyway, on with the show!  An ellipsis serves two major functions:

1.  Indicating pauses (pregnant, awkward, refreshing, or otherwise) in speech.

You might think of this style of ellipsis as literary: its primary purpose is to make the words on the page mimic real speech patterns as faithfully as possible. 

And let me tell you, there are some serious stylistic slap-fights about how exactly to do that. 

But here are what Captain Barbossa might cheerfully call "guidelines" about how to use ellipses to show pauses in speech.  (With handy-dandy references linked.)
By the way, do you see how Squashed-Cat's ellipses are directly attached to the last word of each sentence?  That is not universal or even standard: most style guides will direct you to leave a space BEFORE the ellipsis as well as after it.  The advantage of sticking the ellipsis directly onto the preceding word is that it guarantees the ellipsis won't break onto a second line if the word it's attached to falls at the end of a line.  That would look conspicuously strange and silly.

2.  Indicating omitted parts of a quotation.

This style of ellipsis is decidedly academic: it must show with absolute accuracy where quoted material begins and ends. 

That means there are capital-R Rules about how to treat this kind of ellipsis - no hippy-dippy do-what-feels-good "guidelines" here, buddy.

The original quote from the Pod-Cats above is this:

We can't let you go.  You're dangerous to us. Don't fight it, Miles; it's no use. Sooner or later, you'll have to go to sleep.

Do you see how the line we omitted is a complete sentence?  That's why the ellipsis taking its place is completely detached.  Sentence #1 ends with a normal period.  Sentence #3 begins with a normal capital letter.  And the ellipsis taking the place of Sentence #2 is set apart by spaces on either side.

Let's say we slice out a larger piece.

We can't let you go.  You're ... no use. Sooner or later, you'll have to go to sleep.

The ellipsis is still set off by spaces, but we've Frankengrafted the original sentences together to create a single new one, so there's no other punctuation between them.

Last one: say you want to clip and nip bits that have some peculiar punctuation already.

We can't let you go.  You're dangerous to us. Don't fight it, Miles; ... go to sleep.

Can you see the Rules at work here?  In all the above cases,

1.  The ellipsis is set off on either side by spaces
2.  Other punctuation stays where it is (unless it's part of the omitted material)
3.  If you removed the ellipsis, you would still have a normal, complete, well-punctuated sentence.

A word about spacing.  Some style guides, like The Chicago Manual of Style, will have you form ellipses with spaces before and after each of the three points, like this: _._._._  (So it looks like this: . . . ) This makes it take up more space on the page, but also renders it clear and distinct, so it doesn't look like a random tiny wad of bug turds.

The problem is that if you put spaces between the points, your computer will treat each one as a separate item, which means that they can be broken up onto separate lines, and you will need to be diligent in correcting that.  If you DON'T use spaces between the points, your computer is forced to treat the ellipsis as a single, unbreakable item, and you don't have to worry about it.

Conclusion: if you're writing material that's supposed to adhere to a specific style - MLA, Chicago, Turabian, whatever - then you'd better crack the book and follow it precisely.  Otherwise, the unspaced ellipsis comes in handy for everyday blue-jeans writing.

Okay, okay!  No more for today.  But come back tomorrow, when we talk about the infamous "F" word...!

Further Reading

For ellipses as pauses:
The Petulant Poetess (her sources contradict mine on several points, but they are reputable as all get-out)

For ellipses showing omissions:
The Ellipsis
Grammar Girl : Ellipses

For both:
Yahoo! Style Guide - Ellipsis Points
When To Use Ellipses

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1.  Pete* and Pete, courtesy of my super-rad sister
2.  I took this picture six years ago, and have zero recollection of the cats, the house, or the occasion.  They very well may be from outer space. 
3.  Our very own Peaches

*may in fact be a dog

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. This article is so beautiful I could do the Tumblr Ugly Sobbing.

    1. I am so glad you said so, because I did not know that that was a thing! Thanks, mysterious stranger!


  2. Thanks Tex - again, I've learned something.

    I like using those three little dots—like they're my best friends—but never knew about the space after them. I've been merrily stringing everything together like there's no tomorrow; well I guess when tomorrow comes we'll be seeing those dots a little differently over at my digs, eh!! :)


    1. It's funny - before I did the homework to write this article, I'd never heard of the space *before* the ellipsis! I'm so glad I'm not the only one whose mind is blown by this stuff - and no matter how you arrange your dots, I think it's safe to conclude that you are a pretty terrific writer, regardless!

    2. Thank you! I'm learning so much from you that I've added you to my "Blogs of Note" Blog List - because I don't want miss anything! :)

      Jenny @ PEARSON REPORT

  3. Thank you so much for clearing this up for me. Now I feel like I can be let loose on the page without fear of casting dots randomly through my sentences. Really, I do appreciate the detailed explanation.

    Happy A to Z!

    1. Hi Lillian - thanks so much for stopping by! I'm glad this was useful, but it looks like the mystery of the ellipsis hasn't held you back so far: it is so terrific to meet a published author!

  4. Thank you for this. I'm ashamed to say that, on occasion, I have made mistakes with this (mainly with putting a comma after ... in speech).

    *hangs head in shame*

    1. No! No shame allowed! Because you know what? Nobody freaking agrees on this stuff!

      Well, not the part about commas, anyway. The Chicago Manual of Style does exactly what you described - ellipsis, comma, quotation mark - and it's, like, the Bible of academia and journalism.

      On the other hand, the fiction-publishing world seems not to use the comma.

      And if the biggest of the big-shots don't have a universal standard for this, I would submit that we shouldn't lose any sleep over it!

  5. Ah yes, the Ellipsis(es). I use them a lot in my fiction, and (now) my journal blog.

    I believe I am actually using them right, but in my third piece of fiction I was actually stumped if I was using them correctly. The line is:

    “..are you?”... "...the news...”... "...attacks...” He only heard snippets of --- These dashes are just to indicate I cut the sentence off there. It is to portray pieces of heard conversation. A friend thought it looked right, but it seems a mess! HA

    Love the pieces and am heading over to F!

    1. PS the Village of the Damned cats freak me out lol

    2. That looks good to me! The only thing I might not use are the ellipses *outside* of the dialogue, because the ones inside are doing a fine job already. If he's hearing bits and pieces of a broadcast or a conversation and there's no other interruption, you could even make it one long line. Like:

      "...are you?... the news... attacks..."

      By the way, have I told you yet how much I wanna read Demons of Twilight?

      (Speaking of which, yeah, totally - the fact that I can't even recollect whose cats they were is freaky to me. I think I may have been mind-wiped by the Kittens of the Corn.)

    3. Hmm... Yeah, the bits and pieces heard are over the phone, while a lot of external distractions are taking place. I was thinking there would be a space between each dialog piece like" "...are you?" ... "...the news..." and not "...are you?"... "...the news..."

      Either way, I think only minor editing is needed. Appreciate the help.

      Demons of Twilight is something I really need to finally work on, at some point. It's been on standby since NaNoWriMo.

      Fear the cats. Always.

  6. What I want to know is why older folks tend to use ellipses constantly. It makes it seem like they are mad at me all the time, or extremely condescending or bored. Which, since I know me, is possible. But seriously. Almost every sentence or phrase has an ellipses. Is this a cultural thing?

    Small example from an email I got yesterday: "I still want to have you over for dinner... and not just about this... I want to know what you are doing... and how you are.."

    1. It's a hell of a thing, isn't it! Here's my best, totally unscientific guess:

      In the days before The Internet, people wrote plenty: business letters, personal correspondence, notes on the kitchen counter. But for most of that stuff, there is a prescribed format, which everyone has been rigorously taught in school. This is how you address a letter. This is how you indent. This is the correct way to close, and don't forget your signature.

      But the Internet (and This Modern World in general) has brought us a whole new world of *in*formal writing. Email, Facebook posts, texts, Tweets - there was no schooling for this stuff, and they don't look anything like the formal work we were trained to write. I figure this influx of "no rules" writing occasions has to be at least part of the temptation for "writing the way you think" - whether that's "hoist the abbreviations and damn the spelling conventions!" or some kind of Joycean stream-of-consciousness unpunctuated manifesto, as you noticed.

      That's my best guess, anyway. My condolences on the email - maybe you should bring a bottle of wine and a copy of Ulysses as a host/ess gift.