If punctuation had personality, the period would be the logical one, the comma calculated, the semi-colon the rambler and the colon attention-grabbing.
And the ellipsis? That’s our mysterious one.
What is the ellipsis holding back? What words will we never see in that quoted passage? And why were those words dropped in the first place?
Most importantly, how do we use the ellipsis correctly? Keep reading.
What is an Ellipsis?
An ellipsis is a punctuation mark used to indicate an omission of letters, words or sentences. We show this omission by using a set of three periods in a row.
In short, it looks like this: . . .
The plural form of ellipsis is ellipses. We say ellipses when we are talking about multiple uses of an ellipsis.
Showing Omission with an Ellipsis
The most common way to use an ellipsis correctly, at least in formal writing, is to show that you have removed words from a passage. An example of this is shortening someone else’s quote by using an ellipsis to show where the quote was condensed.
Let’s examine this literary quote:
“The person . . . who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” ~ Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)
I removed the phrase “be it gentleman or lady” because I found it redundant to the modern reader and taking this phrase out of the passage does not change the meaning of the quote.
Is an Ellipsis Needed Before or After the Quote?
Most style guides agree that when you omit words before or after the quoted passage, an ellipsis is not needed to show this omission.
But, of course, there is one instance where using an ellipsis for this reason is correct.
When you drop the beginning part of the first sentence within your quoted passage, you must use an ellipsis if the remaining quoted first sentence starts with a capital letter. An ellipsis is needed here to show that the quotation starts in the middle of the original sentence.
Here’s an example:
“. . . Jo loved a few persons very dearly and dreaded to have their affection lost or lessened in any way.” ~ Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)
This quoted passage often omits the beginning of the sentence “Hope the next will end better, muttered Jo, who found it very hard to see Meg absorbed in a stranger before her face, for” probably for length and because the quoted passage gets to the emotion faster.
Does the Four-Dotted Ellipsis Exist?
Formally speaking, not at all. An ellipsis is always three periods in a row. Not two. Not four. Not seven.
However, there is a concept currently going around calling itself the four-dotted ellipsis, when really it’s a period followed by an omission expressed by a three-dotted ellipsis.
Here’s an example:
“I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. … Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance, any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it.” ~ Charles Dickens, Hunted Down (1859)
I removed the sentence “Don’t trust that conventional idea” from the quote because I found it redundant and already expressed within the other two sentences.
While it looks like a four-dotted ellipsis, this is really a period followed by an ellipsis because the next sentence was removed from the quote. Make sure to include a space between the period and the ellipsis to show the distinction between the two.
If another punctuation precedes or follows the ellipsis, such as a comma (, …) or colon (… :), you include it within the quoted passage as done with the period. In other words, make sure to insert a space between the ellipsis and the other punctuation mark.
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