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Learn how to use the Ellipsis properly


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AmerEnglishLive Free / Speak Free


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Proves to be a handy device …

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AN ELLIPSIS [ … ] PROVES TO BE A HANDY DEVICE when you're quoting material and you want to omit some words. The ellipsis consists of three evenly spaced dots (periods) with spaces between the ellipsis and surrounding letters or other marks. If we intentionally omit one or more words from an original text, we replace them with an ellipsis mark.

The ellipsis mark is also called a "suspension point" or "dot dot dot".

Let's take the sentence, "The ceremony honored twelve brilliant athletes from the Caribbean who were visiting the U.S." and leave out "from the Caribbean who were":

The ceremony honored twelve brilliant athletes … visiting the U.S.

A series of spaced periods is called an ellipsis (the plural, ellipses, rhymes with Gypsies).

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To create ellipsis marks with a PC, type the period three times and the spacing will be automatically set, or press Ctrl-Alt and the period once.

The Three-dot MethodThere are many methods for using ellipses. The three-dot method is the simplest and is appropriate for most general works and many scholarly ones. The three- or four-dot method and an even more rigorous method used in legal works require fuller explanations that can be found in other reference books.


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The Rules

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Rule 1

If the omission comes after the end of a sentence, the ellipsis will be placed after the period, making a total of four dots. … See how that works? Notice that there is no space between the period and the last character of the sentence.

Do we use a space with an ellipsis mark? That is a question of style. Many style manuals recommend no space, like this:

three English learners...studying at university It's not...

Others recommend using a space before and after an ellipsis mark, like this:

three English learners ... studying at university It's not ...

The important thing is that you choose one style and use it consistently. Do not mix your styles.Use no more than three marks whether the omission occurs in the middle of a sentence or between sentences.

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Example:Original sentence:The regulation states, "All agencies must document overtime or risk losing federal funds."

Rewritten using ellipses:The regulation states, "All agencies must document overtime..."

NOTE: With the three-dot method, you may leave out punctuation such as commas that were in the original.

Example:Original sentence from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Rewritten using ellipses:"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth...a new nation, conceived in liberty..."

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In formal writing, an ellipsis marks an omission from a quotation. College style manuals now recommend placing brackets around an ellipsis in a quotation, to indicate that the ellipsis is not part of the original text.

Like the shipwrecked Lycidas, his hopes lie "Sunk [. . .] beneath the watery floor" (167).

Writers of narrative use the ellipsis to mark an unfinished statement:

The last sound on the flight recorder box was the voice of a flight attendant saying, "I wonder if the strange ticking sound could be. . . ."

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Rule 2

The ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in the flow of a sentence and is especially useful in quoted speech:

Juan thought and thought … and then thought some more."I'm wondering …" Juan said, bemused.

We sometimes also use an ellipsis mark to indicate a pause when someone is speaking, or an unfinished sentence. Look at these examples:

She turned to James and said, "Darling, there is something...I need to tell you. I have never felt this before."

"It's not easy to explain. It's not..." Her voice trailed away as emotion welled up within her.

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Note carefully the spacing of the ellipsis marks and the surrounding characters in the examples above. In mid-sentence, a space should appear between the first and last ellipsis marks and the surrounding letters. If a quotation is meant to trail off (as in Juan's bemused thought), leave a space between the last letter and the first ellipsis mark but do not include a period with the ellipsis marks.

One blank space should precede and follow each period: WRONG: "I … I guess so," he stammered. "I. . .I guess so," he stammered. RIGHT: "I . . . I guess so," he stammered.

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When an ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence, use four periods, with no space before the first one (or three periods followed by a question mark or exclamation point).

The last words were "I wonder if the ticking sound could be. . . ." An explosion followed.

Do not divide an ellipsis between lines; all the periods should end one line or begin the next line.

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Rule 3

If words are left off at the end of a sentence, and that is all that is omitted, indicate the omission with ellipsis marks (preceded and followed by a space) and then indicate the end of the sentence with a period … . If one or more sentences are omitted, end the sentence before the ellipsis with a period and then insert your ellipsis marks with a space on both sides. … As in this example.

A coded ellipsis (used in the construction of this page) will appear tighter (with less of a space between the dots) than the use of period-space-period-space-period.

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When words at the beginning of a quoted sentence are omitted, it is not necessary to use an ellipsis to indicate that words have been left out when that fragment can fit into the flow of your text. An exception: in a block quoted fragment, use an ellipsis to indicate an omission:

Rule 4

Suppose we want to quote "The film focused on three English learners from Asia who were studying at university." Perhaps we want to omit "from Asia who were" to save space. So we write:

"The film focused on three English learners...studying at university."

The new sentence still makes sense, but the ellipsis mark shows the reader that something is missing.

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According to Quirk and Greenbaum, the distinctions are unimportant … for count nouns with specific reference to definite and indefinite pronouns.

However, if the material quoted can be read as a complete sentence, simply capitalize the first word of the material and leave out the ellipsis marks:

This principle is described by Quirk and Greenbaum:The distinctions for count nouns with specific reference to definite and indefinite pronouns remain unimportant.

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Rule 5

When a lengthy quotation begins with a complete sentence and ends with a complete sentence, do not use an ellipsis at either the end or the beginning of the quotation unless it is, for some reason, important to emphasize that some language has been omitted.*

*from The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin. 9th Edition. McGraw-Hill: New York. 2001. Used with the consent of Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. p. 75.

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Rule 6

The ellipsis should be regarded as one unit and should not be broken at the end of a line. Toward that end, it is useful to know the code that will create an unbroken and unbreakable ellipsis for you on the word-processing program you are using. On most machines, it's a simple matter of holding down the option key and hitting the semicolon, but this varies from program to program.

To avoid problems when you reformat a paper (change margins, font sizes, etc.), the spaces that surround the ellipsis should also be created as "non-breaking spaces."

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Rule 7

The MLA Handbook recommends using square brackets on either side of the ellipsis points to distinguish between an ellipsis that you've added and the ellipses that might have been in the original text. Such a bracketed ellipsis in a quotation would look like this:

"Bohr […] used the analogy of parallel stairways […]" (Smith 55).

The plural of ellipsis is ellipses (handy to remember when you're playing Scrabble), but the points themselves (the dots that make up the ellipsis) are called ellipsis points or ellipsis marks

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Rule 8

avoid ellipses

Like dashes, parentheses and slashes, they make a page ugly. It is best not to hack up sentences you are quoting. Try rephrasing or dividing one quotation into two:

UGLY: Jane compares the night sky to "a blue sea [. . .] and [. . .] fathomless depth" (108).BETTER: Jane compares the night sky to a "blue sea" and a "fathomless depth" (108).

Avoid the ellipsis in narrative writing too; it easily sounds like a cliché:

TRITE: She gasped, "Can it really be . . . ? I never dreamed. . . ."


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Let’s Review

omissions from quotations. An ellipsis (the plural, ellipses, rhymes with Gypsies) marks omissions from a quotation. College style manuals now recommend using brackets around an ellipsis in a quotation, to make it clear that the ellipsis is not in the original text you are quoting. Ellipses and brackets make your page ugly; use them only when there is no better alternative.

a. One space goes before and after each period: WRONG: "Time's [...] chariot."

WRONG: "Time's. . .chariot."

RIGHT: "Time's [. . .] chariot."

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b. Never divide an ellipsis between lines. All the periods should either end one line or begin the next line.

c. Use ellipses only to omit the middle of a sentence, not the beginning or end: Mocking the romantic exaggerations of lovers, Rosalind scoffs, "Men have died from time to time, [. . .] but not for love" (4.1.101-02).

d. No ellipsis is needed to quote a short, uninterrupted phrase: WRONG: Mrs. Turpin is shocked when the girl calls her an "[. . .] old wart hog [. . .]" (372).

RIGHT: Mrs. Turpin is shocked when the girl calls her an "old wart hog" (372).

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e. If you omit the end of a sentence but continue your quotation, use four periods, with no space before the first. Otherwise you need no ellipsis if you omit the start or end of a sentence:

Johnson satirizes chronic idlers: "Some are always in a state of preparation[. . . .] These are certainly under the secret power of Idleness" (191).

f. In extracted quotations from poetry, an entire line of spaced periods is used to mark the omission of one or more lines. Such omissions look awkward and should be avoided, either by quoting the entire passage, or by using two separate quotations.