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Writing Tip: October 18, 2005

Using the Ellipsis

The ellipsis is used to indicate the omission of words in the middle of a quoted sentence or the omission of sentences within a quoted paragraph. In creative writing, the ellipsis functions to indicate that the speaker has trailed off and left a sentence or thought unfinished.

The ellipsis can consist of either three or four periods, or "dots." A single dot is called an ellipsis point. An ellipsis that indicates the omission of one or more words within a sentence consists of three spaced dots. In this case, in addition to the spaces between the dots, we put a space before the first ellipsis point and after the last one as well.

For the sake of discussion, let’s consider the following passage to be our quoted text, taken from page 78 of a hypothetical county constitution:

“An elected member’s seat will be considered vacant if he or she misses three or more consecutive meetings of the council without a reasonable excuse. A council member may miss a meeting because of personal illness or a family emergency but should not be absent because of vacations, business trips, or other meetings.”

Here is an example of how we would quote from the first sentence of that passage but omit the phrase "of the council": The constitution states that council members will forfeit their seats if they miss "three or more consecutive meetings . . . without a reasonable excuse" (County Constitution 78).

Because the phrase "of the council" is not necessary in this context and because taking out that phrase does not change the intended meaning of the original text or mislead the reader in any way, we can omit it. The three-dot ellipsis lets the reader know that our quotation omits some words but is all taken from the same sentence in the original text. This is called the medial ellipsis.

Sometimes we want to omit words from the end of one sentence but continue to quote from subsequent sentences. Editors and style books differ in their handling of this type of ellipsis, often called the terminal ellipsis. Some style manuals tell us to use three spaced dots, just as we would for an omission within a sentence. However, others advocate the use of four spaced dots. The fourth dot stands for the period at the end of the sentence that we have not entirely quoted; it lets our reader know that the quotation borrows from more than one sentence of the original text. Notice that with the terminal ellipsis, we put no space between the first ellipsis point and the last word in the quoted text: The constitution states that council members will forfeit their seats if they miss “three or more consecutive meetings of the council. . . . because of vacations, business trips, or other meetings” (County Constitution 78).

Most style manuals encourage us not to use ellipses at the beginning or end of a quotation except in rare cases:

Rare: The constitution explains under what conditions a council member’s seat ". . . will be considered vacant . . ." (78).

Widely accepted: The constitution explains under what conditions a council member’s seat "will be considered vacant" (78).

In cases where we have no parenthetical documentation, we use a period (which always goes inside the quotation marks): The constitution explains under what conditions a council member’s seat “will be considered vacant.”

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (6th ed.), published by the Modern Language Association, advocates enclosing an ellipsis in square brackets to let the reader know that the ellipsis was not in the original text. Other widely used style manuals—including the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the Texas Law Review Manual on Usage, Style & Editing—do not encourage the use of brackets around ellipses, however.

Of course, when omitting material from a source text, we must be very careful never to skew the intended meaning of a passage. We are ethically obliged to use care when omitting another writer’s words so as to represent the intended meaning honestly and accurately.

Another use for the ellipsis is to indicate that a sentence trails off, unfinished: "We thought the doors were locked, but just to be sure . . ." This type of terminal ellipsis always consists of three spaced dots, rather than four, with no space between the last dot and the closing quotation marks. However, we should generally avoid this construction in expository writing, including business writing, because in such contexts we want our thoughts to be clear and complete. An unfinished, incomplete construction is more appropriate in informal or creative writing.

Occasionally we encounter writers who use ellipses widely and without discretion in place of other punctuation marks. Such usage is always inappropriate in professional contexts. Not only does the writer appear vague and uncertain (even, perhaps, as if he or she is not confident about using other marks of punctuation), but the writing is difficult to read in the absence of more appropriate punctuation.

© 2005 Get It Write

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