The ellipsis, those three consecutive periods you often see in novels and news stories, is among the most misunderstood punctuation marks in use in the English language. It is used indiscriminately in text messages, instant messages, and e-mails, and social networking websites and blogs haven’t helped to curb the trend. However, the ellipsis is an actual punctuation mark that serves a particular use, in both formal and informal styles of writing. If using ellipses confuses you, try following some of these simple guidelines as to when ellipses should be used—and when they should not.
Before discussing when ellipses are appropriately used, a few words on how the ellipsis is used are necessary. An ellipsis makes up for a missing piece of text, or allows for a pause in writing. According to various style guides, an ellipsis is three periods, with a space in between each [ . . . ]. In general, there is also a space before and after the ellipsis. Some style manuals prefer three dots with no spaces in between [ ... ], and others still prefer the auto-formatted version of the ellipsis, with less than a full space in between each dot […]. Until very recently, the Modern Language Association require brackets before and after ellipses (as seen above); however, the use of such brackets has declined in recent years. Although brackets are still technically correct, they are largely deemed unnecessary.
News stories compile information to disseminate to the population, and news agencies depend on the accuracy of a news story in order to gain the confidence of an audience. Sometimes when a quote is used in a news story, parts of the quote are unnecessary to the story. When a bit of a quote must be removed to improve the clarity or focus of a story, an ellipsis is used. If, for instance, a fire broke out and a fire chief said “we’ve determined positively, absolutely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, drawing our conclusions from all the available data, understanding the impact of the recent spate of arsons, that this fire was accidental,” most of the quote would likely be considered unnecessary. Clarity and focus could be improved with an ellipsis: “we’ve determined positively … that this fire was accidental.”
In formal writing, such as academic papers and published research, an ellipsis is used much to the same effect. Essentially, a quote might be too long or clunky to fit into a paper in its entirety. Instances such as these require an ellipsis to draw attention to the substance of a quote without damaging the quote’s integrity. For example, a discussion of search and seizure might invoke the Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”), but remove the unnecessary parts: “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated….” Notice that if a sentence ends with an ellipsis, a final period is included for clarity.
Stories and novels use ellipses to a very different effect. An ellipsis can demonstrate a pause in dialogue, a pause in narrative, or a character or a narrator trailing off. “I’m not sure what to do…” he stammered” is a perfectly acceptable use of an ellipsis in such a case because it demonstrates the inability of the character to make up his mind. Similarly, a narrator might say of a character, “He was without hope… Desolate, empty… The epitome of a broken heart.” The format of these ellipses is not subject to formal guidelines; three dots followed by a space is usually appropriate. A pause in text appears much the same way. “She wasn’t angry … she was just tired.” This case uses an ellipsis similar to what would be used in a piece of news writing, but it is understood that the character who is speaking is merely pausing for emphasis or thought. No words were omitted from his or her dialogue.