Q&A: The ellipsis … explained

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, our ellipsis are sealed …

Q: Hey there… can you tell me how to use dot-dot-dots properly?
A: Sorry, what?
Q: You know – dot-dot-dots. The punctuation that likes to leave you in …  suspense.
A: Oh, you mean the “ellipsis”.
Q: Isn’t that what you put e-cigarettes between? #vape
A: Haha. No. An ellipsis is the name given to that “three dots” form of punctuation. And it typically has three distinct jobs. The first is the most important – to denote where words have been omitted in a quoted piece of text. The ellipsis helps maintain the quote’s integrity. Often square brackets are also used […] but that’s not necessary.
Q: Example?
A: “The cake was made by three bakers and … has four types of chocolate,” said the food awards judge. In this case, the full quote had been, “The cake was made by three bakers and a team of decorators. They used twenty bags of flour and it has four types of chocolate.”
Q: What are the four types?
A: We just made up the chocolate quote.
Q: White, dark, milk … Hmmmm.
A: Let’s move on.
Q: Fine. So that’s one of its jobs. What about the other two?
A: The other two are closely related. The first is like a dramatic pause … purposefully used to convey thought or similar, like we just did in this sentence. And then you have the cliffhanger, leaving people in suspense with an ellipsis at the end …
Q: So, is there a proper way to actually format an ellipsis?
A: Yeah, good question. Different style guides will have their own rules – especially newspapers – but most agree that when omitting quoted text, you should leave a space before and after the three dots.
Q: And the other two jobs?  What about… only leaving a space after. Or even…no space at all?
A: Well illustrated. Yes, some writers will go for these options – but there is another common one they’ll go for too. We’ll talk about that shortly …
Q: Nice suspenseful ellipsis.
A: Thank you.
Q: So how do you actually format one of these things? Three full stops?
A: Most modern word processing programs will recognise when you type three full stops in a row and automatically turn it into one (slightly wider) single ellipsis unit – useful as it won’t be broken at the end of a line. You can also type Option + Semicolon on a Mac or Alt-Ctrl-fullstop on PC (Word) to make one appear.
Q: Really? Let me try that. … Wow! It works.
A: The other common one that writers use is a little more manual. They type three full stops, with a space in between. The result looks something like . . . this.
Q: So, again, it’s about consistency.
A: Yes. Or it’s about following a particular style guide. They will all have an opinion on how to write ellipses.
Q: Aha, so “ellipses” is the plural?
A: That’s right.
Q: I thought that was like an oval shape?
A: Well, yes an “ellipse” is – and oddly, the plural is also “ellipses”, despite being completely unrelated.
Q: What about that thing where the sun and the moon line up?
A: Those are eclipses.
Q: And those sticks that apply colour around your mouth?
A: Lipsticks.
Q: Got it. So … can I ask where the name “ellipsis” comes from?
A: It’s from the Greek word elleipein  – meaning “to leave out”.
Q: And I guess the big question is: should I use them?
A: Blogging and social media have seen them used everywhere. And we must admit, we love using them in informal writing like this column. They can mimic the pauses in natural conversation. But where possible, you should avoid ellipses in formal writing as much as possible.
Q: Sounds like a plan. And yet …

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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