Dot. Dot. Dot.

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. :)

Tweet: There are ’way too many ellipses in your manuscript, my friend.
Tweet: Dot-dot-dot. You’re just trying to make your dialogue more realistic, right?

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.”

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24 Comments

  1. Joseph Moore says:

    Something I often see done incorrectly in screenplays is using elipses to indicate interrupted speech. This too is an abuse. The correct way to indicate that speech is being interrupted is a single dash.

    JOHN
    So, let me tell you a long boring story about the time I went-

    MARY
    Oh God, not that story again, John! Can’t you just be quiet for-

    A large meteor falls from the sky killing both John and Mary, along with most of the pedestrians on Lower Broadway.

  2. […] Dot. Dot. Dot. By Jamie Chavez at Read>Play>Edit […]

  3. Jamie: there’s gotta be a space before the ellipsis AND after?
    Joseph: a single dash—or an em-dash?

    • Jamie says:

      Yes, currently that is the preferred style in publishing. In fact, Chicago dictates the space-dot method, rather than used the keyboard-created ellipsis, which is one character. But either way, there is a space on either side unless some other piece of punctuation (a question mark, an end-quote) is there, in which case, no space. Joe means an em-dash. :)

      • Joseph Moore says:

        Em-dashes, elipses, curly-quotes, etc. are all typographer’s marks. At least in screenplays, and I thought in manuscripts, they are not to be used. Three periods indicate an ellipsis. Two dashes are used to indicate an em-dash, etc. Again, I come from a screenwriting background, but if can’t be done on a typewriter, it is to be done by the designer/typesetter, not the writer. Similar to the reason why double spaces drive designer’s mad.

        • Yeah, Final Draft software doesn’t include an em-dash. And its ellipsis drives me nuts.

        • Jamie says:

          Nowadays, because we have computers, we do use both en- and em-dashes in manuscripts. (And curly quotes.) The copyeditor is expected to insert all of these in the appropriate places (there are many, many rules in CMS for this, things the typesetter isn’t expected to know). I’m not sure when this changed from being the typographer’s responsibility to being the copyeditor’s, but it has. :)

          • Joseph Moore says:

            Ah, well, it’s a huge no-no in screenplays. Sure to get your 120 pages tossed straight in the trash.

        • Jamie says:

          They still want you to use Courier, too, I think…?

          • Joseph Moore says:

            Oh yes. If you deviate from Courier, you might be fudging the page count. There is this silly belief that one page equals one minute of running time. While a decent rule of thumb, it is actually considered a hard-fast rule. Which is ridiculous because one sentence could equal an hour of screen time. “A great battled ensues.”

          • Jamie says:

            LOL!

  4. A.J.Race says:

    Thank you for this… I know that I have a huge problem with ellipses. Including just now. Quick question though, at what point do you use an em dash? Can’t that be used in place of an ellipses? I’ve been a little murky on that one. Thank you again. And thanks for mentioning my website on your own, it gave me quite a boost the other day. :D

    • Jamie says:

      How could I not link to the woman who called me a spirit animal! :)

      If you’re talking about dialogue, you’d use an em-dash when one character interrupted the speech of another. (See comments above for an example.) Or even if a character interrupted himself and changed topic. Otherwise, there are some rules, I believe, or suggestions—you might check Chicago Manual of Style for specifics. When I am copyediting, I often just make an (ahem) editorial decision on when to use a period, semicolon, or em-dash. Rarely an ellipsis, though. :)

      • A.J.Race says:

        I’ll keep that in mind, thank you. :D and erm… I’m a guy :D I get mistaken for a woman a lot though so… yeah. :D

        • jamiechavez says:

          LOL! So sorry! If it’s any consolation, this happens to me too (all my life—in the dark ages everyone assumed Jamie was a boy’s name, and, in fact, I was named for my father, James). My apologies. :)

          • A.J.Race says:

            No big deal, I’m totally used to it. I can’t go anywhere without being called ma’am (which makes me wonder…how old do I look exactly?) I’m usually told I look younger than I am, but isn’t ma’am considered a respectfully older thing? But thank you for apologizing nevertheless. :)

  5. Excellent post. Just discovered your site. Thanks for all this valuable info.

    I have a question. This (below) is the first sentence of a new chapter. Is the ellipsis used correctly? And if not, how should the paragraph look?

    “Have you ever wondered…” John Finlay looked up from the stiff pillow of his hospital bed through yellowed eyes. “…what happens when you die?”

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks for your kind words. :)

      The correct way to punctuate this, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, would be

      “Have you ever wondered”—John Finlay looked up through yellowed eyes from the stiff pillow of his hospital bed—“what happens when you die?”

      The dialogue here is all one sentence and I don’t see him pausing. He is ill and may be speaking slowly, but the beat we’ve inserted slows it down. The reader will get it.

      Note I also corrected the beat itself. :)

      • Thanks very much for the help, Jamie!

        Also, if you don’t mind and just out of curiosity, why must “through” come before “from” when they are each following “looked up?” Why is one correct and the other not?

        Thanks!

  6. Mari Adkins says:

    It bugs me, as an editor and a reader, when writers use an ellipses to imply interrupted dialogue. The gods created the hyphen for that, but too many don’t think to use it for that. Hyphens stick words together, not interrupt them. It makes my teeth ache.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Interestingly, Chicago does suggest using ellipses for interrupted dialogue (see 13.39: “faltering or interrupted speech”). I was surprised when I saw that the other day. I use the em-dash for interrupted, ellipsis for faltering.

      • Mari Adkins says:

        I can “dig it” for faltering speech, not so much for interrupted. It’s been so long since I’ve dug through a CMOS that I’d forgotten that was in there. Wow.

        • Jamie says:

          I live by it; just about the time I had the numbers memorized for the 15th, they came out with the 16th. :)

  7. […] tags, leaden dialogue, exposition masquerading as dialogue, overuse of exclamation points or ellipses … Oh, I could go on and on. Poor writing usually reveals a lack of voice […]

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  9. […] Dot. Dot. Dot. from Editor Jamie Chavez […]

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