how to use ellipses

How to Use Ellipses in Dialogue and Academic Writing

The question of how to use ellipses is one of the most common confusions in writing. To keep your writing interesting, it’s important to vary your sentence structure. You can create unique sentences by changing your punctuation and writing sentences of different lengths, for instance. In some cases, you might find yourself wanting to use an ellipsis. But how exactly do you use them, and how do the rules vary for different styles of writing? We’re here to explain. 

What are Ellipses?

First things first: what are ellipses? Essentially, an ellipses ( … ) is a series of three periods placed in text to indicate that something has been left out or omitted. Perhaps you want to include a quote in your next piece, but there’s a middle portion of the quote that isn’t needed for your purposes. You could use an ellipsis to indicate that you’ve let out some material. 

How to Use Ellipses in Dialogue

Now that we know what ellipses are, we need to learn how to use ellipses. Ellipses are commonly used when writing dialogue, often to show that a character has trailed off or is hesitating in their speech. Here’s an example of a speaker trailing off:

“I’m not sure…whether we should go through with this.” 

Ellipses can be used in the middle of a sentence, but you may also see them at the beginning or end of sentences as well. Here’s an example of an ellipse at the end of a sentence: 

“I just can’t believe it….” 

Notice how this example has four periods instead of three. In this case, we see the ellipsis, consisting of three periods, as well as an additional period that would normally be placed at the end of a sentence. This indicates to the reader that the thought is complete. You can do the same with other forms of punctuation, like so: 

“How do you know that…?”

As we mentioned, you might also use ellipses at the beginning of a sentence. Let’s say your scene begins with a character walking into the middle of a conversation. The character approaches someone who’s talking, but the character didn’t hear the entire story. Your dialogue might look like this: 

“…so I answered the phone and it was my doctor calling about my test results.” 

The reader can tell that a conversation was going on before our main character arrived thanks to the ellipsis at the beginning of the sentence. 

You can also use an ellipsis to omit an entire sentence in the midst of a long conversation. When you do this, though, remember to leave a space on either side of the ellipsis. Here’s an example:

“When are we going to leave for vacation? … How long will we be staying?” 

How to Use Ellipses in Academic Writing

If you’re focused on non-fiction, then you likely want to know how to use ellipses in academic writing. 

Much of academic writing involves quoting experts in the given field. But, as we mentioned earlier, you may only want to reference a portion of a quote for your purposes. In this case, you’ll use an ellipsis in its normal format: three dots placed in the middle of the quote, replacing the section you wish to omit. 

Let’s say you wish to quote a section of the famous I Have a Dream speech from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here is the full section that you want to quote:

“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

You can shorten this quote and still retain the meaning by using ellipses in this manner: 

“And if America is to be a great nation, this must come true. And so let freedom ring…. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Note that this example contains the standard ellipsis (with three periods) as well as an additional period to indicate the end of the sentence(s) being omitted.

More About How to Use Ellipses

Of course, academic writing can adhere to various style guides, each of which has its own unique rules concerning how to use ellipses. For instance, The Chicago Manual of Style indicates that writers should leave a space between each period, like so: . . .

Image Source: ProWritingAid

In journalistic writing, it’s traditional for ellipses to be placed inside a set of brackets, as demonstrated here: [. . .]. The brackets show that the writer/editor omitted a portion of the quote and added the ellipses, as opposed to the original speaker who is being quoted. 

Finally, it’s worth quickly noting that ellipses are often used interchangeably with dashes and colons, but each of these punctuation marks has its own distinct function. A dash can indicate a break in text, just like an ellipsis does, but dashes typically show that the speech has been interrupted abruptly, whereas an ellipsis indicates that the speaker has trailed off. A colon also works to break up text but only appears in specific instances like the introduction of a list.

The biggest difference in ellipses versus colons or dashes is the representation of omitted words. If words are being left out, only an ellipsis can accurately portray this information. Colons and dashes cannot be used if text has been omitted. 

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