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Ellipsis…the John Wayne of Punctuation

Oct 6, 2022

It’s a classic element of any old western movie, the main character riding off into the sunset. In many ways, it is the perfect ending; it gives the viewer a sense of closure while implying that the story continues.

But, can you capture the same emotion when writing?

I’m just not sure…

The Ellipsis

Those three evenly spaced periods up there are called an ellipsis (plural: ellipses). Originating from the Greek word meaning omission, an ellipsis is used in the following situations:

  • When omitting quoted material
  • To show an unfinished thought
  • To show hesitation or change in a train of thought
  • To create a pause for effect

Quoted Material

When quoting material, an ellipsis can be used to omit a section of the quote that is not necessary for the reader to understand your point. By making lengthy quotes clear and concise, you can drastically improve the readability of your document while retaining the basic structure, all without misquoting anyone!

Not only does using an ellipsis in this situation make your writing more succinct, but it can reduce your word count.

Examples

Here is a quote by William Zinsser from his book, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction:

“Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience—every reader is a different person.”

Here’s how an ellipsis is used to shorten this quote while retaining Zinsser’s point:

“Don’t try to visualize the great mass audience … every reader is a different person.”

Unfinished Thought

An ellipsis can also imply an unfinished thought or a thought that trails off. This use is often seen in fiction writing to show a character’s thoughts or internal monologue. It can also be used in nonfiction writing to show unfinished ideas or asides.

Examples

Fiction: It was the best of times …

Nonfiction: There are many factors to consider when choosing a career …

Hesitation or Change in Train of Thought

An ellipsis can also be used to show hesitation or changes in a character’s train of thought. This use is seen most often in dialogue, as it can help to show the natural ebb and flow of conversation.

Examples

“I was going to say that I love you … but I’m not sure if I do.”

“I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve … being a barista.”

“I’m not sure if I want to go to the party … maybe I’ll just stay home.”

Pause for Effect

When used correctly, an ellipsis can be a powerful tool to create suspense or tension. It can also be used for comedic effect, often by breaking up an otherwise serious statement.

Examples

Tension: The murderer slowly raised the knife …

Comedy: “I’m not saying that I hate you …  but I really, really, really hate you.”

Spacing and Punctuation and the Ellipsis

As is often the case when discussing the English language, the style guides disagree on whether to add spaces between the dots or not.

The Chicago Manual of Style calls for spaces between every ellipsis dot (. . .). The AP Stylebook says the ellipsis should be treated as a three-letter word, with spaces on either side of the ellipsis but no spaces between the dots ( … ).

If your organization has an internal style guide or has adopted a published document as its preferred guide, follow whatever they recommend. If you don’t have a style guide, choose whichever format you prefer; just be consistent. Even grammar checking software like Grammarly accepts either convention.

Microsoft Word and the Ellipsis

In Microsoft Word, you have two simple options for inserting an ellipsis in your writing.

The first option is to use the shortcut keys Ctrl+Alt+period (.) on a PC or Command+Option+period (.) on a Mac. The second is to type three periods in a row: Microsoft’s default is to autocorrect those three periods into an ellipsis.

Note:

The shortcut and the default autocorrect create AP style ellipses.

If your style guide requires spaces between your periods, override the AutoFormat function to autocorrect three periods into your preferred ellipsis using the instructions below.

Create an ellipsis (. . .) in a Word document by typing the following:

period, nonbreaking space, period, nonbreaking space, period (Type Ctrl+Shift+Spacebar to make a nonbreaking space.)

Highlight the ellipse you just typed and copy it (Ctrl+C).

Go to File>Options>Proofing and select AutoCorrect Options.

Screenshot of how to choose AutoCorrect Options

Check “Replace text as you type.” In the “Replace” box, type three periods, and copy your ellipsis (Ctrl+V) in the “With” box.

Screenshot to show how to replace three dots with an ellipsis of choice

Select the “Replace” button, and then hit “OK”. Select “OK” one more time.

Final Thoughts

While ellipses are often overused or misused, they can be a helpful tool in your writing arsenal. Used correctly, they can make your writing more concise, show unfinished thought, or create suspense. Just be careful not to overdo it!

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