The Dot Dot Dot

n. el-lip-sis, plural ellipses
1. the omission of one or more words
2. a mark indicating such an omission (. . .)

Colloquially known as the dot-dot-dot , the ellipsis can be a useful or highly annoying device. It all depends on how it is used and how frequently it appears.

Punctuation authorities agree that an ellipsis should chiefly be used to indicate an omission of words in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. Usually the purpose is to condense a quote by discarding any phrases that are irrelevant or unnecessary. It is important when altering quoted text to make sure that the meaning of the original quote is unchanged by the omission.


Original: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Properly condensed: We . . . establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (The meaning is unaltered.)
Improperly condensed: We the People of the United States . . . promote the general . . . Constitution. (Although the ellipses have been correctly inserted to indicate missing words in the middle of the sentence, the meaning of the sentence has been altered.)

Alternately, many writers use ellipses in dialogue to indicate that the speaker pauses or trails off. While this is technically acceptable, it is usually preferred that dashes be used to indicate breaks in speech. Use this rule: If the pause or interruption in speech is abrupt, use an em dash. If it stems from the speaker’s uncertainty or hesitation, use an ellipsis. But be careful to use ellipses very sparingly, as they can be quite off-putting in clusters.


Correct: “I just . . . can’t believe he’s guilty.”
Correct: “So then I was thinking that we—Oh, my God, I forgot my purse at the restaurant.”
Incorrect: “I just . . . can’t believe he’s guilty . . . I mean, we had something really special . . . I just don’t know . . . I feel so lost . . .” (This space-cadet rambling is annoying to read.)
Incorrect: “Our customers are really important to us . . . Thanks . . .” (This smacks of insincerity, or at least a lack of conviction.)

Ellipses can also be used to show that words are left out because only snatches of dialogue are audible.


As Bianca drifted to sleep on the couch, she was vaguely aware of her mother talking on the phone in the kitchen. “I tell you, Rita . . . can’t imagine why . . . Well, I don’t doubt . . . part of that same group . . . Wednesday? . . .” (Bianca’s mother is not trailing off; rather, her speech is fading in an out. If Bianca were flipping through radio stations, em dashes would be a better way to punctuate the abruptly interrupted speech.)

Thanks for reading . . .