Thursday, June 19, 2014

Writing PSA: Ellipses

by Katy White

One of the perks of being a writer is belonging to the writing community. One of the perks of belonging to the writing community is having incredible critique partners who pick your stuff apart and for whom you do the same. It's always neat to see the different personalities and preferences of your critique partners and beta readers based on their feedback. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm a particular kind of CP... *cough* anal *cough*

You see, I love grammar the way Canadians love donuts. That isn't to say that I don't break writing rules or that I don't think it should be done. Because I do. Like that. See? Sentence fragments. Bam. (I love sentence fragments.)


Playing around with words and sentence structure and crazy punctuation to make a point can be a joy. Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite authors, doesn't even use basic punctuation or grammar rules in his writing. And it's absolutely masterful.

But unless you're him, there are some rules you just can't break. One such rule surrounds the ellipsis, or dot-dot-dot.

That's right, three dots*. Not four. Not eleven to show you're feeling REALLY dramatic about this pause. Three dots. Three.** 

Now, even when writing ellipses (the plural of ellipsis), there are some differences of opinions. Most style guides will tell you that the dots should have a "thin space" between them. MS Word includes this automatically, so that rather than looking like "..." it actually looks like ". . .". It's subtle, I know. But no one is really going to get mad at you for missing the thin space (or for claiming that you're adhering to the style guide that omits the space), and, honestly, if an editor cares, she'll likely just fix it. So, don't stress about the spacing. But, please, for the love of the children, do stress about the number of dots. Three.

But wait! you cry. Sometimes there are four dots! Okay, you got me. But those dots you see don't all belong to the ellipsis, because an ellipsis, by definition, is three dots. Thus, when you see four dots, one of those is actually a period to indicate that the omitted material ended a sentence...which, again, doesn't belong much to fiction/everyday writing. We use ellipses in fiction to trail off a thought or to show a pause or hesitation or to heighten the drama about to be revealed when you finally finish the sentence. 


Let me show you a couple of examples of what an ellipsis looks like in fiction writing:

"I didn't know how else to explain him.  He just...was." (Ellipsis indicates a pause.)

"I never meant to..." (Ellipsis indicates a trailed off thought or that the speaker lacks the words.)


And in less common, more non-fictiony writing:

"And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said . . . I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know. . . . he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them."

You see what happened there? In the first ellipsis, because I was only removing a section within the same sentence, I wrote a standard ellipsis. But the second time around, because I was omitting more material (ellipsis) and there was a sentence break in what I omitted (period), four dots were required. Make sense?

Keep in mind that if you remember nothing else from today's public service announcement, the surefire way to annoy Katy is to have more than three dots in an ellipsis. :)  


*Although the ellipsis is technically comprised of periods, "dot" is also acceptable. So if you were thinking of getting snarky...frankly, I appreciate the instinct.  ;)

**Before I get too far into this rant, keep in mind that I'm not talking about academic or non-fiction writing where the ellipsis indicates that a word/line/paragraph is being omitted.

6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Ha! Good one there, Kasey. Now Katy is going to have to hunt you down and throw stale donuts at you. Just because.

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  2. Okay, can I be a total poo now? I'm sorry to be a stinkpot here, but . . . (see what I did there?) the four-dot ellipsis is actually only for when the material that's left grammatically forms two separate sentences.

    So: "And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said . . . I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know . . . he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them."

    Or: "And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said . . . I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded. . . . He shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them."

    In the second one, the omitted material turned the two parts into two different sentences. So the first dot is not part of the ellipsis. It's just a period. (Please don't throw stale donuts at me! :) )

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  4. Ha!! Funny.....I mean, really good......... I'm so confused! OK, really... great post. It annoys me to see more than three dots as well!

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