Someone asked me recently, “What do those little dots mean?” Good question, actually, since they are tossed around like pebbles all over social media. However, the ellipsis can be a unique and effective tool when used correctly. Here are the facts on those little dots. 🙂
The official name of three periods in a row is an ellipsis (singular) or ellipses (plural). A single ellipsis contains three periods with no spaces between them. Not two periods, not four periods, not any other amount—exactly three periods. There is even an ellipsis “symbol” in Word and some Mac apps, and when you insert it, the three periods equal one character (you can’t separate them).
There are two main uses for ellipsis: quoting and for effect in informal writing.
* When quoting, you must use an ellipsis if you only use an extraction of a direct quote. An ellipsis indicates where you have intentionally left out words. I’ll quote C.S. Lewis as an example:
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
“Failures … are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
When you see four periods used, are they an ellipsis? No. Four periods in a row (in professional writing) are one ellipsis and one true period. Using the same example, notice the period at the end of the first sentence, then the ellipsis immediately after it—two punctuation marks, not four:
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. . . . toward success.”
I won’t go into much detail here because different style guides have their own distinct rules when using ellipses in quoted material. Also, there are varied rules about spacing before and after an ellipsis.
The one consistent rule is this: there is no space after the last period in an ellipsis and a question mark or closing quotation marks as follows.
“To be or not to be …” (no space between ellipsis and ending quotation marks)
“Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou …?” (no space between ellipsis and question mark)
* In informal writing, ellipses are used for effect.
Ellipses reveal a person’s hesitation, mood changes, suspense, or words trailing off. Here are some (cheesy) examples:
Cinderella felt her face flush as the Prince asked her name. “My … my … oh dear, I’m feeling rather warm.”
“Have we danced too long? I don’t want you to faint!” He gallantly led her through the weaving dancers. “Do you need air … or something to drink … or …?”
She looked at the clock. “Why, it’s almost … I have to go!” She slipped out of his arms and dashed away.
Please use ellipses sparingly—maybe one every five chapters. They are hard to read because we stop when we come across them. If you put too many in, your writing becomes jolty and awkward. Readers will (unconsciously or even consciously) “skip over the dots” to get to the writing that flows. Instead, use clever wording to convey hesitation. Taking out all ellipses from the example above:
Cinderella felt her face flush as the Prince asked her name. Her mind stuttered over what to say as he whirled her around again. Finally, she fanned her face. “Oh dear, I’m feeling rather warm.”
“Have we danced too long? I don’t want you to faint!” He gallantly led her through the weaving dancers. Then he looked anxiously at her. “What can I get for you?”
She looked at the clock. “Why, it’s almost—I have to go!” She slipped out of his arms and dashed away.
DON’T use ellipses unless it’s absolutely necessary. Here’s an example where ellipses are used effectively:
“Muh … muh … muh-aaayyyeee …” BJ stuttered.
“My—very good!” Mrs. Teacher beamed.
He took a deep breath. “Nuh … nuh … nuh …” He stopped as his eyes filled with tears.
“You can do it,” she tenderly lifted his chin. “Naaaaaay-m. Name. Try again, sweetheart.”
BJ wiped his eyes and tried again. And again. With Mrs. Teacher’s patient encouragement, a half hour later with brow clenched and fists tight, he spoke those four magic words—My name is BJ.
Notice that I didn’t make you read every single effort of BJ trying to speak. I gave you two complicated lines to read—solely so you could feel his immense struggle. Continuing, I describe how BJ continues to stutter and how he feels to keep the story flowing.
ANOTHER BAD IDEA: I’ve seen authors use an ellipsis to end a paragraph or even the end of a chapter, trying to build suspense. Since our eyes drag over the periods, it has the opposite effect—it dilutes the suspense. Don’t do it! End with powerful, suspenseful words.
Landon heard the bear growling and tearing up the ground behind him. He panted, lungs and legs burning, but he couldn’t outrun the bear, and there was nowhere to hide…
Landon heard the bear growling and tearing up the ground behind him. He panted, lungs and legs burning, but he couldn’t outrun the bear. He screamed—anticipating claws and fangs ripping into his flesh.
Excellent writing, not punctuation, is what keeps readers eagerly flipping pages to see what happens.
Savvy Writer Tip:
Ellipses are punctuation that writers use for two purposes: when quoting and for effect in informal writing. There are only three periods in an ellipsis. They are considered one character, not three separate characters. They are often overused, which has a detrimental effect on readers. Ellipses are hard to read because the eyes and mind have to stop each time they are used. It’s like tripping over stones. There are rare times when their use is truly effective, so limit ellipses to those instances. Especially don’t use them at the end of lines or chapters. Savvy writers understand precisely when and how to use the ellipsis correctly and effectively. 🙂