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Using . . . Ellipses

I don't know whether you have any punctuation marks that are hard for you to keep straight. I have only one whose spacing and length challenge me: the ellipsis.

Last week a client emailed me with an ellipsis question, and I realized I have to face the ellipsis and write about it here if I want to maintain my reputation as a business writing expert. So this post is for my reputation and our edification (yours and mine), I hope.

Here are a few things I understand well about ellipses:

One of them is an ellipsis; more than one are ellipses. Examples: The title of this post contains an ellipsis. I have difficulty punctuating ellipses.

Ellipses are used in two places: (1) in quoted material, to show that words have been left out of a quotation or that the speaker trailed off and (2) in one's own writing, to pause or trail off.

Although ellipses are important in quoted material (to show that words are missing), they are rarely a good idea in one's own business writing. In our own writing, we shouldn't be pausing (unless giving a speech) or trailing off. Pausing and trailing off do not inspire confidence in our readers although they can create a certain mood in advertising copy.  

Beyond those basics, I have had difficulty keeping track of the spacing and the number of periods in ellipses. If spacing and number are not tricky enough, the various reference manuals call them periods, dots, points, and even period-dots. I will call them periods.

I pored through five style manuals last night, and here is what I learned:

The reference manuals disagree about the spacing of the periods. The Associated Press Stylebook (AP) and Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (Microsoft) both treat an ellipsis as a three-letter word–that is, with one space before and after it but no spaces between the periods. This sentence contains … an example.

In contrast, The Gregg Reference Manual (Gregg), Garner's Modern American Usage (Garner), and The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) all space between the periods . . . as I just did. I prefer the spaced periods.

There is no disagreement among the manuals about the number of periods to use to indicate words left out in the middle of a sentence: They all use three. 

So far, so good.

What about leaving out words at the end of a quoted sentence?

The reference guides agree that such an omission requires a fourth period. Example:

There is no disagreement among the manuals about the number of periods to use . . . .

Garner, Gregg, and Microsoft all recommend a space before the first period. This space indicates that words were left out at the end of the original sentence. Oddly enough, AP does not space before the first period–it spaces after it, like this. …

Gregg also covers how to end the sentence if the speaker or writer trailed off before the end of a sentence. Gregg recommends using just three periods at the end of your sentence. Example: We don't know how . . .

And how do we show that we have left something out after the end of a complete quoted sentence? For example, what if we have left out the next sentence or several sentences? 

Again, Garner, Gregg, and Microsoft agree. They do not space before the first of the four periods. This sentence is an illustration of how Garner and Gregg handle the sentence. . . . Microsoft recommends this way….

Chicago recommends many different ways of handling end-of-sentence ellipses, with pages of commentary. If you quote material regularly in scholarly or scientific papers, with many variations in the omissions, I recommend consulting Chicago.

All the guides agree that ellipses should not be broken between two lines of text. So if you find them divided across two lines, you need to insert nonbreaking spaces between the periods. If your screen shows any broken ellipses in this blog post, please recognize those breaks as errors.

I am feeling confident about my use of ellipses after doing the research, and now I'll just refer to this post. I hope you will too.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “Using . . . Ellipses”

  • Wow, I didn’t realize there were so many variables – and variable sources! I’m glad I found your blog because I keep getting information that I needed two days ago. Which means other information will be what I need two days from now! Thanks.

  • Lynn,

    I echo Val’s comment about you always providing great information that I needed two days ago and all of the other stuff being things I know I’ll need.

    Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into your writing. It’s appreciated!

    Desiree Kane

  • Wow, I thought I knew about ellipses, but now I see I did not! I had no idea there was a fourth period when the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence, and with so many spacing variations!

    Thank you for the very helpful post.

  • I knew about the proper uses of ellipses, but had no idea there was such controversy over the spacing — and I’ve been doing it a different way than any listed! Thank you for this excellent information.

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