The Great … Ellipsis Debate

By:  Victoria Adams

Being a publisher, and occasional editor, I find myself between a rock (the author) and a hard place (the editor/formatter) when it comes to the question of ellipsis. Three little dots that seem to be out to conquer the world or put it on eternal pause. I cannot promise any resolution in this article, but I can promise much food for thought.


First comes usage. Originally the ellipsis was used solely to indicate omitted words in a quote. Usage was (and is) carefully applied so as to not change the context or meaning of the quote. The three little dots are not supposed to represent huge portions of omitted text, only phrases or portions of a paragraph. For purposes of nonfiction writing this is still the only acceptable usage.

Then along came the door into temptation. It became accepted to use ellipses for other reasons. More strictly, if they are used at the beginning of a sentence they are supposed to convey an emotion of sadness. If they are used at the end of a sentence it indicates an entrance into silence. Then things get messy.

The following quote is from the Grammar Girl: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/ellipses?page=all

The Chicago Manual of Style states, “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” The Manual contrasts ellipses with dashes, which it states should be reserved for more confident and decisive pauses.

As a note, the Manual calls ellipsis that are not related to a quote “suspension points.” Probably a better description of the usage implied. Evidently even my favorites of using them to indicate an interruption or a stutter are not appropriate. For these instances you are supposed to use the em dash.

Given these standards, how many is too many? Is there some magic number like x dot things for every Y number of words? There is a general consensus that the faithful little dots are taking over the world and are, most of the time, simply not the right choice. Some of the ways to know whether or not they are appropriate is to seriously think about other options. Remember the comma, semi colon and colon? Also, it appears that the use of the em dash is far more acceptable in a number of cases.

The issue is that the ellipsis do precisely what they are meant to do – they add a pause. They stop the sentence. At some point the reader gets tired and isn’t interested any more. If you can’t complete the thought, how do you expect your reader to? Although they can be useful to convey a character’s hesitancy, or distraction, or indecision, at some point you really need to write the story.

The second part is the debate on proper presentation. Yes, “…” can come in different styles. The AP Stylebook indicates that it should be … (space before, after, none in between), while the Chicago Manual of Style indicates it should be . . . (space between each dot and on either end). This of course does not include the proper form if the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence or other punctuation is involved.

It is easy to understand why the AP likes the more compact version. First of all when you are dealing with space in a publication of any type, spreading things out is not always an economic option. Secondly, when justifying text (as you would in a book) the . . . is seen as separate words. This means they can be spread out over a line or broken up between lines. Not very pretty.

It is true that Word has a function called the “no break line” (Ctrl+SHIFT+Space), however this does not always convert to other formats. For instance the pdf versions required to upload to most printers. This is why publishers will lean to the AP style guidelines in preparation of a manuscript for publication.

The important things to remember when making a choice for both usage and formatting are:

  1. Is there any other way I can convey the meaning I want in this sentence or phrase?
  2. What is the end purpose of my piece and the formatting requirements for publication?

For further investigation, I found these posts of interest, and even a bit fun.




VICTORIA ADAMS is an accountant and financial analyst by profession, but numbers can get numbing. Not in a mood to allow her mind to glaze over, she has always found ways to be creative in her business career by helping in the growth, development or startup of many different kinds of enterprises. That creative spirit extended to many of her leisure activities where she pursued such things as pottery, needlepoint, gardening, and well just about anything that is creative. Her professional background has also made her a perpetual researcher. In this way she developed a deep love of philosophy, religion, history, archeology and anthropology. What she learns she loves to share so she has been a teacher and occasional speaker. For many years her husband tried to get her to share through writing. Now that she has tested the waters with her first book, which ironically was about the first year of learning to live with his dementia, she is ready to reach further and write the things he always wanted to see.

Blog: http://victoriasreadingalcove.wordpress.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/readingalcove?ref_type=bookmark

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