The ellipsis has in recent years become one of the most overused and misused punctuation marks. Truthfully, many of the authors I work with don’t understand how to use it or even know what it is. If I write a comment in a manuscript saying, “Maybe an ellipsis would work better here,” I am not surprised when the author puts in a semicolon or a dash, not knowing what an ellipsis is.
So just what is an ellipsis? It’s a series of dots.
But how many dots? I’ve seen authors use five, six, or even ten dots because they don’t realize there is a standard rule. The ellipsis has three dots. If it comes at the end of the sentence, it still has three dots but is to be followed by a period to end the sentence, so in that case we could say it has four dots. Here’s are some examples of its proper use:
“I don’t know…. Maybe I shouldn’t do that.”
Here “I don’t know” is a complete sentence so four dots are needed.
“If you want…I’ll go to the party with you.”
Here it occurs in the middle of the sentence and represents a pause so three dots are needed.
In both cases above, the ellipsis represents a pause. The speaker is basically trailing off into thought and not speaking, then speaking again. However, a better use is just to leave it at the end of the sentence to show something is left unsaid.
“I don’t know what….” Or “Mary said that….”
The above usages of the ellipsis are acceptable, but too often people overuse it. There are only three proper usages for an ellipsis:
1. To show a pause, as in the second example above.
2. To show an incomplete sentence, as in the third example.
3. To show omitted words. In this case, it is usually used when quoting someone to show it is not a full quote. For example, let’s say I want to quote part of the following text:
“I really like ice cream. Cookies and pie and any kind of chocolate are also good, but ice cream is the superior food.”
Then I can use an ellipsis to let the reader know I have left words out of the quote:
“I really like ice cream…the superior food.”
When is the ellipsis misused? Primarily by being overused as a pause and usually an unnecessary pause. I’ve seen many a book with dialogue with strings of ellipses (note ellipses is the plural of ellipsis) where other punctuation marks would be a better choice. For example:
“When I go for a walk…I like to go to the woods…they help me to reconnect with nature and with myself…which fulfills a deep spiritual need of mine. It also helps me realize we are not alone on this planet…there are chipmunks and squirrels and birds and all kinds of wildlife…in nature that make me know that in terms of the big picture…my problems are small.”
That is far too many ellipses in one sentence. As I said above, the ellipsis should represent missing words or a pause. There are no missing words here, and no one would talk like this, pausing every few words, unless they were having difficulty breathing. It’s unnatural. Most of the ellipses in this example could be replaced with commas or an occasional dash. Here’s how I would rewrite it:
“When I go for a walk, I like to go to the woods. They help me to reconnect with nature and with myself, which fulfills a deep spiritual need of mine. Being in nature also helps me realize we are not alone on this planet—chipmunks, squirrels, birds, and all kinds of wildlife make me know that in terms of the big picture, my problems are small.”
You’ll note that I also did some rewriting of the second part of the sentence to make it more concise. All of the ellipses I made into commas except for the one after “planet” where I thought a dash would work well since a dash is like a semicolon in the sense that it shows a relationship of thought between parts of a sentence.
I hope this discussion has helped you to understand better when and when not to use an ellipsis. I challenge you to use it sparingly—one ellipsis per page is probably too much. Before you use one, ask yourself if a period, a comma, a semicolon, or a dash wouldn’t do a better job of conveying your message.
Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), established in 2005, and is the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. For twelve years, Tyler served as Vice President (2007-2008) and President (2008-2019) of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is also the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012) and the former book reviewer for Marquette Monthly (2008-2019). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.