Knowing how to use ellipses properly takes a bit of effort. Before we move ahead, please keep in mind that different style manuals give different recommendations for how to use ellipses! Haven’t we found that this is always the case? So you do have a bit of choice on how to use ellipses, but I will be referring to the Chicago Manual of Style as my basic reference source.
For the duration of this article we are going to continually use the following excerpt from Stephen King’s novel, Different Seasons:
- “The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
First, you should know that the proper way to make an ellipses is with three period marks, with a space in between each mark. You also leave a space at the beginning and end of the ellipses. Think of it as treating the ellipses as a word that requires a space both before and after it.
How to Use Ellipses in Formal Writing
The most frequently used purpose of ellipses in formal writing is to indicate words that you have omitted from a direct quotation. Now, where it gets tricky is the fact that there are different rules on whether to use ellipses, depending on where the omission lies within the sentence. So we’ll address all of them:
- When the omission is in the middle of a sentence, or between two or more sentences
- When the omission is at the beginning or end of a sentence
Omissions in the Middle of a Sentence (Or Between Two or More Sentences)
This is one of the most basic and straightforward uses of ellipses. If you are quoting someone and you want to omit some words in order to shorten the quotation (but retain the meaning), then you simply insert the ellipses in place of the omitted words. This is true whether or not the omitted words are in the same sentence in the original, or found in two or more sentences.
- As Stephen King states in Different Seasons, “The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried . . . and you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all.”
Now if you look back to the original earlier in the article you will see that I omitted quite a few words from two sentences. The omissions were all from between two sentences in the original.
Omissions at the Beginning or End of a Sentence
Most style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, have you omit ellipses at the beginning and end of a sentence. This is true even if the beginning or end of the quote is omitted.
Furthermore, you should omit ellipses at the beginning or end of the quotation – wherever it appears in the sentence. This may seem counter-intuitive. I mean, if you are omitting words at the beginning of a quote, it would seem that you should indicate that by an ellipses. But most guides say that you should NOT do this.
- In “Different Seasons,” Stephen King examines the inability of words to properly express multi-dimensional thoughts, “words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size.”
If you compare this quote to the full passage above, you’ll see that the quote leaves out words both at the beginning and end of King’s passage. Yet we do not put ellipses at the beginning or the end to indicate that.
You can also see that you do not have to capitalize the first word inside the quotation marks. Now, you could if that was the beginning of the original text, but since it was mid-sentence I did not have to. If you want to, for whatever reason, then you would have to place the w in brackets to let the reader know that the word was not capitalized in the original text.
- In “Different Seasons,” Stephen King examines the inability of words to properly express multi-dimensional thoughts, “[W]ords shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size.”
What About Other Style Guides?
I think it’s important to note that most style guides use the format I have described above. MLA style does use ellipses at the end of quotes where words are omitted. However, if you are using multiple quotes in your work this can sometimes get quite “messy” looking. Today’s style of writing, particularly professional and online writing, often works best with the method discussed in this article.
How to Use Ellipses in Informal Writing
I couldn’t close this article without at least mentioning the informal uses of ellipses. In emails, texts, and all sorts of social media writing, ellipses are used to simply indicate something like a long pause. It’s used to indicate that the writer is either faltering in their speech, thinking, or just taking a big breath or a moment to think.
While this can be somewhat expressive in informal writing, beware! Like semicolons, the overuse of ellipses can become annoying after a while. (I should know—I used to overuse them too!) So use them if you must, but do so sparingly.