Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Style Maven: Pucker Up Your Ellipses!

This post was first published here on July 10, 2012

Good morning, duckies! Lace up your tan shoes with pink shoelaces, because polka-dot vests are in style today. They’re the perfect attire to compliment today’s subject, the ill-used and underestimated ellipsis.

As defined by The Chicago Manual of Style, “An ellipsis is the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage.”  Such an omission is indicated by those familiar little spaced dots called ellipsis points.  When used to illustrate suspended thought, they go by the imaginative title of suspension points.

I suppose simpler can be better, but still . . .

So, how do we use these points?  I could go on and on (just ask my husband), but I’ll try to finish before your coffee gets cold.  There are enough rules regarding these things that we can come back on another day for more details.

Let’s start with omission and the not-so-noble art of taking things out of context.  Suppose you’re a fashion designer, eagerly awaiting a review of your latest collection.  The paper arrives, bringing a scathing article by a critic.  “Herkimer K. Birdhurdler pushes the boundaries of good taste with this collection that works hard to offend on so many levels.”


Don’t worry, Herk.  Here comes the ellipsis to save your ego.  In your next round of promotions, if you are a touch on the unethical side, you can clip the article to say something like, “this collection . . . works . . . on so many levels”.

Don’t try this at home, however.  The Manual is very clear on this.  “A deletion must not result in a statement alien to the original material.”

Got that, Herk?  Take your lumps, dump the ellipses, and use fewer feathers next time.

Let’s cover a couple of quick rules about ellipses before I run off for the day.  Keep your dots all on the same line, together with any punctuation that follows.  Preceding punctuation can stay on the line above if a break gets in the way.  Avoid using ellipsis points before the first word in a quotation or after the last, unless, as the Manual states, “the sentence as quoted is deliberately incomplete”.

That’s enough for now.  We’ll revisit ellipses another day. Enjoy your day, go easy on the omissions, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style! 

The Style Maven is the result of an experiment in sleep deprivation and over-consumption of sugar. She lives in a downtown loft furnished with an industrial-sized coffeepot, a modest collection of shoes, and seventy-two thousand books.


  1. This is such! This is a tricky subject and I look forward to future explorations on the topic.

    (Although I can hear Dani now: "The only thing you need to know about ellipses is to use fewer of them." Do I have that right, Dani?)

    I love that the BRP "Style Maven" has such a distinct writing style. Knew right away it was you, Audrey!

  2. So many questions, Audrey...

    One has to do with the use of spaced points, per Chicago, or the ellipsis glyph, as in many (but not all) typefaces. Where do editors come down on this? Publishers? Discerning writers want to know.

  3. I am guilty of the crime of misuse. Now you have given me impetus to stop with the dots!

  4. Thanks Audrey for the lesson in ellipses. Did I spell the plural form right? Regardless, my editor's life just became a bit easier.

  5. As an occasional user of the ellipsis (and somewhat less tolerant editor of same), I appreciate your article and look forward to future postings on the topic.

    Good to have you with us, Audrey. I also look forward to your other contributions that will show us how to tweak and tighten our styles.

  6. Would you do a favor for those of us who have trouble understanding written instructions and provide some examples? You totally lost me with the thing about using the second line and what to do with other punctuation. Not your fault; my brain just doesn't work that way.

  7. I hate the ellipsis... usually it means the writer didn't know what to say and the reader is supposed to fill in. Publishers definitely feel this way, so get rid of them before you pitch a manuscript. It's also a conundrum because various guides dictate different spacing before and after the dots. The above example is preferred in the UK, but I believe the CMOS ... let me think ... has a space before AND after the dots. We'll have another post about this to clarify even further, because there is nothing clear about ellipsis use. Except to use them infrequently, and no more than you would use an explanation mark!

  8. I use ellipses, but primarily in dialogue and to a lesser extent, in internal monologue. Somehow, it makes the dialogue seem more real somehow, because we don't speak in complex sentences or even complete thoughts so much of the time.

    My biggest 'offense' is with the punctuation, since e-book readers (the devices, not the people) look at spaces to decide where words end. So, connecting words with ellipses often ends up with ugly formatting. I've started leaving a space after the ellipsis, just to 'fool' the computer software.

    Terry's Place

  9. Terry, I suspect the CMOS change is directly related to the e-book formatting issue. My memory isn't the best anymore (especially since I learned British grammar growing up and am always comparing two styles), but I'm fairly certain there was no space after the word and preceding the dots a long time ago.

  10. The writer who lives by the ellipses, dies by the ellipses ... I'm constantly looking over my shoulder.

  11. I'm always questioning my use of the ellipsis, so this post was a timely read!

  12. Kathryn, of all the posts I've written, this is definitely one of them.

    Larry, the CMOS favors spaced points, but does allow that the glyph may be used if your editor is not Dani.

    Marly, you should have seen me with my nose against the page, trying to decipher the rules! Basically, you can't hyphenate (so to speak) your ellipses. Any line breaks that come up must be placed in such a way as to allow the ellipsis points to stay in a group. Preceding comma or period may remain on the line above if necessary. Clear as mud, eh?

  13. Thanks for all of the encouragement! And the nagging, I suppose. ;)

    "The Style Maven is the result of an experiment in sleep deprivation and over-consumption of sugar. She lives in a downtown loft furnished with an industrial-sized coffeepot, a modest collection of shoes, and seventy-two thousand books."


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.