Grammar: The Ellipsis, That Handy Punctuation Mark

English Grammar: How to Correctly Use the Ellipsis

Ah, the ellipsis. The ellipsis can be a bit of a pain, but once mastered, it’s a great tool. For the purpose of this post, I’m only talking about using the ellipsis in fiction, not as it is applied to journalism, nonfiction, or academic texts.

First, what are ellipses used for?

They are used to indicate text (usually dialog) that is trailing off and also for missing dialog such as in an overheard conversation (say a phone conversation where the protagonist only hears one side). Em dashes are used for interruptions. The hyphen is often used to indicate stuttering, though that is a deviation from The Chicago Manual of Style. But back to the ellipsis.

Here are a couple of examples of ellipses with notes:

“Wh…what do you want?”
This is the classic stutter. Because it’s the same word, no space in the ellipsis. A lot of authors and publishers also use a hyphen for a stutter (“Wh-what do you want?”), which is totally fine.

“I felt… like a third wheel.”
When the ellipsis shows a bit of a pause between two words, as if the character is thinking about their word choice, I always put a space after the ellipsis, but not before (more on that below).

“I’m not sure what you want of…”
This is not a complete sentence, therefore no period is needed.

“I’m not sure what you want of me….”
This is a complete sentence, so add the period at the end of the ellipsis, in this case.

“I’m not sure what you want of me…,” she said.
When an ellipsis is at the end of dialog that is closed with a speech tag, it takes a comma.

So, a bit more on the technical aspect of an ellipsis:

Traditionally an ellipses is formed by typing space, period, space, period, space, period, space ( . . . ) with whatever punctuation you’d normally have (see above). This is also a bit of a holdover from the days when type was set manually. But that spacing tends to play havoc with eBooks. Now that we lay out books digitally, we actually have an ellipsis character. So what to do?

The best fix I’ve found is to let Word do its single-character ellipsis (type three dots in a row to get this (no spaces)–you’ll know it took because the kerning will shift a bit and if you use the arrow cursor keys, one tap of the key will go to the beginning or end of the entire ellipsis. You want to “attach” the ellipsis to the word preceding it so that it remains on the same line and then space after the ellipsis if there’s another word following—no space if punctuation.

English Grammar Ellipsis Hell

Doing it this way ensures that you won’t have lines that display on the Kindle like this:
“So much of our lives together is what you wanted. Not me. I felt . .
. superfluous a lot of the time.”
“So much of our lives together is what you wanted. Not me. I felt
… superfluous a lot of the time.”

The space after the ellipsis will keep you from having a huge hunk of white space at the end of a line, like this:
“So much of our lives together is gone. Not me. I
felt…superfluous a lot of the time.”

Instead, you’ll have this:
“So much of our lives together is what you wanted. Not me. I felt…
superfluous a lot of the time.”

One last tip:

When you use an ellipsis, there’s no need to say that someone’s voice trailed off. That’s what the ellipsis indicates. 🙂

As always, feel free to ask me if you have any questions, and I hope this helps.

Happy writing!

Title photo by Maria Bobrova on Unsplash

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