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
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.)
- If the speaker is trailing off, the three ellipsis points are sufficient - you don't need to add a period.
- If the speaker is trailing off and you're closing dialogue, you don't need to add a comma before the dialogue tag. (Ex: "Excuse me..." he stammered.) EDIT: Sorry, the Chicago Manual of Style says that you do. I maintain that that looks silly, but if you want to follow the letter of the literary law, get the comma in there!
- If the speaker is trailing off and you want to end with a question mark or exclamation point, it goes after the ellipsis. (Ex: "Anyone...? Bueller...?")
- If the speaker is trailing off from one sentence and starting a new one, you should still begin the new sentence with a capital letter. (Ex: "That is the ugliest thing I've ever... What the hell is that smell?") NB: I almost never do this in my own writing, because I think it looks stupid. YMMV.
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.
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:
Grammar Girl : Ellipses
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!)