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Ellipses and Suspension Points

Most people think of an ellipsis as the three dots. Yes, well, there’s a bit more to it than that. Quite frankly, there’s a lot more to it than that, but rather than bamboozle you all (and myself!) I will concentrate on the key points. If you have any questions outside of what I cover, please feel free to leave me a comment and I will do my best to answer. Basically, when something is missing it’s an ellipsis, and when those three dots are used with interrupted speech or hesitancy, they are called suspension points.

The New Oxford Style Manual defines an ellipsis (plural ellipses) as “a series of points (…) signalling that words have been omitted from quoted matter, or that part of a text is missing or illegible”.

Some reference guides suggest spaces between the three dots, but most stipulate a space either side also. A rising trend is to use the Unicode. In MS Word this is done by going to Insert Symbol and choosing Unicode 2026 – Horizontal Ellipsis – as so … This produces a single character of 3 dots.

There are several schools of thought on whether there should be spaces around the ellipsis. The New Oxford Style Manual generally says yes, such as in the case of words or sections which are missing from quoted material.

Professor Roth cited his sources … and had been for some time.

Interestingly, if you do employ the industry-wide accepted form of a space around the three dots, you don’t have a space directly before a closing quotation mark.

“I thought he was going to …”

Also, if your sentence which tails off ends in an exclamation mark or a question mark, it still keeps the relevant mark.

Do you think …? Never in a month of …! The exclamation or question mark may come either before or after the ellipsis (the sense will dictate this).

And if the sentence is a complete sentence, the full stop/period is retained also before the ellipsis (New Oxford Style Manual practice) and is closed up to the final word.

“I thought I had made myself clear.… “

But, when the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence which tails off, you don’t place a full stop after the last word.

“I don’t think I’ll be …”

If, however, that sentence is part of a larger sentence, which contains quoted matter, then you place the full stop or relevant punctuation mark after the closing quotation mark. (confirmed UK usage – New Oxford Style Manual)

I was just saying, ‘Mikey, you know you’ve been working …’.

However, some style guides, editors and authors prefer to have the ellipsis with no spaces on either side of it, but still as three individually typed and spaced dots, not the Unicode. Others too prefer to have no spaces between the dots and no spaces on either side. And then there are those who put a space after the final word before the ellipsis but no space after it and also the converse.

The key, as ever, is to be consistent. Don’t have one usage with spaces and later on another without. Don’t retain the full stop or period in one sentence but omit it in the next.

You should normally not use an ellipsis before the first word of a quotation, although you can have it before the first word of a sentence which isn’t a quotation. Nor should you put an ellipsis after the last word of a quotation.

I have often been asked if you should capitalise the first letter of a new sentence if it immediately follows the ellipsis. Yes!

“I am not going to … At her request, I did.”

You can also use an ellipsis for effect:

“He unwrapped the parcel layer by layer …”

or to show hesitation:

“I’m … not really … sure I know …”

Nowadays there is a tendency to overuse ellipses when we are writing, however their usage should be limited in formal writing, as too many of them can drag your readers’ attention away from your story.

Parting shot: I can’t emphasise it enough – be consistent!

Next time: Direct and indirect questions