This article will explain the significance of the different ways in which an ellipsis can be presented.
A typical dictionary definition will be along the lines of:
Ellipsis. (n.). Plural ellipses. A series of three full stops (…) used to signify that written matter has words missing.
However, such definitions leave a lot unanswered.
Why are the words missing?
The reason for the missing words could be that they are irrelevant (or inconvenient) for the writer’s point, or because they were not written or spoken but were presumed to be intuitively understood by the reader/listener, or because they are illegible in the original text (a faded photocopy, a chipped stone tablet, etc.). It is not advised to use ellipses to signify an enforced omission such as censorship of a profanity—asterisks are usually used for censorship. Note that an ellipsis is reserved for two or more missing words; an em rule is used to indicate a single missing word (and an en rule is used to indicate a missing letter).
Here are some examples using the text above.
He wrote: ‘The reason for the missing words could be that they are irrelevant … intuitively understood … or because they are illegible.’ [Using ellipses to maintain the original sense.]
He wrote that ‘the missing words … are irrelevant … because they are illegible’. [Using ellipses to distort the original sense.]
[Note. Unlike with languages such as Italian and French, in English there is no distinction between suspension and omission with an ellipsis.]
Is an ellipsis really three full stops?
Traditionally the three dots are separated by spaces of the same size as those seperating the words, (. . .), so yes, they used to look like three full stops in a row. This is now uncommon; modern practice is to use an ellipsis ‘character’ with narrower spaces (…).
When and where is other punctuation included?
When the ellipsis occurs in an embedded quotation at the end of a sentence then the closing quotation mark is placed before the full stop.
The first paragraph about ellipses and punctuation begins: ‘When the ellipsis occurs in an embedded quotation at the end of a sentence …’.
When an ellipsis occurs at the end of an incomplete sentence that is not a quote then do not use a full stop (or ‘fourth point’).
Freelancealot’s grammar blog begins with …
In general, a comma that occurs before or after an ellipsis can be disregarded unless you feel it aids comprehension (perhaps in a list of items separated by commas).
When the sentence before an ellipsis finishes with a full stop then keep the closing full stop, followed by a space and the ellipsis. Use a capital after an ellipsis only if what follows is the beginning of a sentence. There’s sense to these two rules. Text that includes a sentence ending in a full stop followed by an ellipsis then a sentence beginning with a capital letter indicates that at least one complete sentence is missing. Using a lower-case letter after an ellipsis informs the reader that words are missing from that sentence. Here are some examples using this paragraph.
Using a lower-case letter … informs the reader that words are missing. [It’s self-explanatory really. Some words are missing.]
There’s sense to these two rules. … a lower-case letter after an ellipsis informs the reader that words are missing from that sentence. [There may or may not be a whole sentence missing, but there’s definitely part of one sentence missing.]
Use a capital after an ellipsis only if what follows is the beginning of a sentence. … Text that includes a sentence ending in a full stop followed by an ellipsis then a sentence beginning with a capital letter indicates that at least one complete sentence is missing. [A sentence is missing.]
To write the above paragraph—which contains an ellipsis—as a shortened quote it will of course be necessary to use an editorial ellipsis. Place this editorial ellipsis inside square brackets to distinguish it from the one in the original quote. Here’s an example.
Use a capital after an ellipsis only if what follows is the beginning of a sentence. … Text that includes a sentence […] beginning with a capital letter informs that at least one complete sentence is missing.
To signify that a paragraph is missing place an ellipsis after the final full stop at the end of the paragraph before the omission. Do not use one at the start of the new paragraph.
Question marks and exclamation marks are retained before or after an ellipsis, depending on original use.
How many dots?… and where do you include other punctuation? [Not an embedded quote.]
Why did you include that bit: ‘… in English there is no distinction between suspension and omission …’? [The embedded quote is not the question so the question mark is after the closing quotation mark. *See note at the end about style and use of ellipses at the start and end of a quote embedded in normal text.]
He pointed at the teapot and his cup. ‘Could I …?’ [No space before the question mark. It’s not from the above text either, I know; I’m just including a little reality.]
Other Uses of the Ellipsis
For Dramatic Effect.
Dracula’s coffin lid began to creak …
And yet another is to convey interruption.
Use ellipses to indicate the point of interruption and the point of resumption.
‘You want more tea? Why are you writing that?’
‘Because correct punctuation enables you to use …’
‘Would you like milk? One lump or two?’
‘… fewer words to convey more information.’
An ellipsis can also be used in mathematics to signify the continuation of a sequence that the reader is meant to deduce. In this context, when the ellipsis is left open (not followed by anything) it signifies an infinite continuation; when it is followed by an item then that item is understood to be the last in the sequence.
2006, 2008, 2010 … [Every two years from 2006 onwards.]
1, 2, 4, … 512 [Double the preceding number until you reach 512.]
How to Create Ellipses with Microsoft Word
Type three dots (without spaces inbetween) press the space bar and Word will create an ellipsis. If that doesn’t work and you’re on a computer running Windows, the shortcut ‘Alt+Ctrl+.’ will create an ellipsis.
Otherwise one can be found by selecting Insert from the menu, followed by ‘Symbol…’ (which, interestingly, does not use a space before the ellipsis) and selecting the ellipsis from the Special Characters tab.
Notes on Different Styles
There are different styles of usage for ellipses in UK English. Some publishers don’t ever use a full stop following an ellipsis (aka a ‘fourth dot). Oxford’s New Hart’s Rules does use the ‘fourth dot’, as described above. Freelancealot supports the full stop with an ellipsis because, as explained earlier, it aids greater precision. The term ‘fourth dot’, in this writer’s opinion, is an unhelpful term as it refers to what is really only a full stop behaving normally.
Publishers who decide to disregard the full stop following an ellipsis will often choose to use a closed ellipsis (an ellipsis attached to a word). I don’t know from where this style of closed ellipses originates; it’s a bad habit of mine to blame the Americans for this sort of thing but the American APA and Chicago style guides both recommend using spaces either side of an ellipsis.
(*) Oxford style is not to begin or end a quote with an ellipsis, e.g. Hart’s states that ‘the reader must accept that the source may continue before and after the text quoted’. The use of a lower-case letter to begin the quote informs us that this is an incomplete sentence. Hart’s does use an ellipsis at the end of a sentence when the ellipsis does not signify a continuation of a quote (such as a trailing off, as in ‘Could I …?’).
Freelancealot believes this usage should depend on the style of text. Where the quote is presented in block text we do use an ellipsis to signify that the quote is only part of a sentence. So another way of presenting the above quote would be:
‘… the reader must accept that the source may continue before and after the text quoted.’
The first ellipsis signifies that part of the sentence is missing. It’s a fair point to make that this introductory ellipsis serves no function that the lower-case t does not provide. It seems superfluous. But what happens when a sentence begins with a part of a quote, or when punctuation is used to introduce the quote? Should we use a capital letter even though there would not be one in the original? This would seem to increase the chances of a quote being used out of context, which is surely not a helpful development. Furthermore, choosing a style that does not use an ellipsis to indicate that a quote continues does create a reduction in precision. By using a style that allows for continuation ellipses, the lack of an ellipsis at the end of the above quote tells us that the quote ended with ‘quoted’. Using Hart’s style we do not know whether or not the quote ended with ‘quoted’. Sometimes this could be important; other times not.
When the quote is part of the running text I choose to follow Hart’s advice and not use ellipses to begin and end quotes. In the example in the paragraph following the above asterisk I did not use an ellipsis (or a capital letter) because of the syntax (were the quotation marks removed, so that the direct quote becomes a reported one, the sentence would read smoothly). I also consider the importance of the quote within the context of the writing in which it is quoted. But I’m straying into the topic of punctuating quotations and I’ll write a separate article for that.
I like the clear precision of opening and closing middle-sentence quotes with ellipses but appreciate that page space can be limited—and too much punctuation can make writing look cluttered. As always, it’s a trade-off between practicality and precision. Whatever you decide is appropriate for your writing or editing you should be consistent with its application.
[As with all these grammar posts, your interesting and insightful comments are invited.]