An ellipsis consists of either three or four periods, or dots. A single dot is called an ellipsis point. The definition is pretty straightforward, but using ellipses can be tricky.
Writers use ellipses for various reasons. An ellipsis can indicate the omission of words in the middle of a quoted sentence or the omission of sentences within a quoted paragraph. And in creative writing, the ellipsis might indicate that the speaker has trailed off and left a sentence or thought unfinished.
An ellipsis that indicates the omission of one or more words within a sentence consists of three spaced dots. In such cases, in addition to the spaces between the dots, we insert one space before the first ellipsis point and another space after the last dot as well.
For the sake of discussion, let’s use the following passage as our quoted text, taken from page 78 of a hypothetical county constitution:
An elected member’s seat will be considered vacant if the member 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.
Using Medial Ellipses
Here is an example of how we would quote from the first sentence of that passage while omitting 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 removing 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.
Using Terminal Ellipses
Sometimes we need 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 require that we use three spaced dots, just as we would for an omission within a sentence while others advocate the use of four spaced dots. The fourth dot indicates 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 terminal ellipses, we put no space between the first ellipsis point and the last word in the quoted text. The first ellipsis point indicates the end of the sentence from which the first part of the quotation has been taken, while the other ellipses points indicate that we have omitted words in another sentence (or other sentences) prior to the remainder of the quotation:
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).
What about at the Beginning or End of a Quotation?
Most style manuals encourage us not to use ellipses at the beginning or end of a quotation except in rare cases:
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.”
Omissions Must Not Change Meaning
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.
Ellipses in Creative Writing
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.
We generally avoid this construction in expository writing—including business writing—because we want our thoughts to be clear and complete. An unfinished, incomplete construction is more appropriate in informal or creative writing.
Ellipses Do Not Substitute for Other Appropriate Punctuation
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 this construction make writers appear vague and uncertain (even, perhaps, as if they are not confident about using other marks of punctuation), but the writing is difficult to read in the absence of more appropriate punctuation, such as semicolons, colons, and dashes.
© 2005 Get It Write. Revised 2020