It’s called an ellipsis, that little bit of punctuation we are all so fond of. (Yes, even me.) When there are more than one of them—and there often are—we say ellipses. As in There are ’way too many ellipses in your manuscript, my friend.
Ellipse is a mathematical term, too, but you know we’re not talking math here, right? That lecture is in Room 3B, just down the hall.
In formal writing, of course, we use the ellipsis to show an omission. For example, I took a little piece from one of humorist Garrison Keillor’s monologues …
We English majors need a mouthpiece in Congress of the caliber of Rep. Don Young of Alaska. And we need to promote public libraries as a tool in the war against terror. How many readers of Edith Wharton have engaged in terroristic acts? I challenge you to name one. Therefore, the reading of Edith Wharton is a proven deterrent to terror. Do we need to wait until our cities lie in smoking ruins before we wake up to the fact that a first-class public library is a vital link in national defense?
… and edited it to fit on my website, like this:
We English majors … need to promote public libraries as a tool in the war against terror. How many readers of Edith Wharton have engaged in terroristic acts? … Do we need to wait until our cities lie in smoking ruins before we wake up to the fact that a first-class public library is a vital link in national defense?
Those ellipses indicate something’s been removed (thirty-four words, to be exact). But, as Grammar Girl says about this, “Integrity is essential when using ellipses this way. It’s acceptable to tighten a long quotation by omitting unnecessary words, but it’s important that you don’t change the meaning.”
In fictional dialogue the ellipsis is sometimes used that way too. That is, when a speaker trails off without completing his sentence. Perhaps he’s shocked and doesn’t know what to say; perhaps he’s distracted and forgets he’s talking. Perhaps he’s purposefully leaving something unsaid. Regardless, at this point, the character is finished speaking, and words have been left out.
But when you start using the ellipsis to indicate a pause in speech, I want you to think carefully. We all pause or slow down when we’re talking. So let’s put an ellipsis here … and here … and … You’re just trying to make your dialogue more realistic, right?
Maybe. Once you put in that first ellipsis, it looks good, it sounds good, and pretty soon you have a manuscript full of dot-dot-dots. It’s a slippery slope. Editors tend to think excessive ellipses in fiction are a mark of inexperience. We remove them.
And here’s the thing: you don’t really need them (except in the trailing-off situation). A lot of times a simple period, ending the sentence, will give you the pause you’re looking to create with the ellipsis.
Try it. You can thank me later. :)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”