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Friday, February 27, 2009

First in a Series of Articles on Ellipses by Boyd Sutton

Ellipses are an often neglected subject--one, in fact, that many editors are not thoroughly versed on. Boyd Sutton, editor of Wisconsin Writers' Journal, the official journal for WRWA, published a well-researched piece on ellipses in his 60th anniversary edition this month. He has kindly allowed me to serialize it and run it in this colummn, a little (digestible) piece at a time. I hope you'll follow along.

By Boyd Sutton, editor of the Wisconsin Writers' Journal

We all use ellipses in our writing. But getting them right is elusive. Ellipses are those three periods, sometimes spaced (. . .), sometimes not spaced (…), used to indicate that one or more words have been omitted from a quotation or, in dialogue, that a speaker has not brought a remark to completion or that there are awkward pauses in the speaker’s remarks. The problem is not so much in their usage as in their correct presentation—and in correct usage of other punctuation associated with ellipses.

When to Use Ellipses

One or more words have been omitted from a quotation. Ellipses should be used when the omitted text is irrelevant to the author’s purpose and it does not alter the meaning of the quoted text.
Example: Jones states that, “Neither alternative ... really affects the outcome.” In this case, the author believes that including the omitted alternatives would not add useful information; and, he believes that omitting the alternatives doesn’t change the meaning of the quoted text.

Most style manuals urge not to use ellipses at the beginning or ending of a quotation, except in rare cases.

Incorrect: The bylaws explain under what conditions a member’s seat “... will be considered vacant …”

Correct: The bylaws explain under what conditions a member’s seat “will be considered vacant.”

In dialogue, a speaker has awkward pauses and incomplete utterances. Ellipses should be used when the speaker’s words are halting or incomplete (trailing off without a clear ending).

Example: “I can’t, you know. I ... I just can’t tell her.” Or, “It’s impossible for me to actually believe that she actually ...,” Harry said, close to losing it.

In dialogue, to indicate missing parts of a two-party conversation when only one part is heard. Ellipses can be used to show one side of a telephone conversation, for example.

Example: “Hello. ... Mary, where have you been? ... Oh, no! ... Slow down; slow down. ... Stay right there. I’ll be there in 10 minutes. ... No, don’t call Jack. He’ll freak out. ... No! Just sit tight and wait for me.”

When quoting a poem and eliminating one or more entire lines. This is a rare use, but good to know. When a poem being quoted has not been run in with the text, but has been presented as an extract, the omitted lines are marked by a series of spaced dots (dot-space-dot-space-dot-etc.) equivalent in length to the line immediately above it.

Example: (From The Grammar Desk Reference, page 270) In Diane Stevenson’s poem, Resurrection,” the act of knitting becomes a means of recovering, reclaiming the body of a departed loved one:
Here are the many soft fists of yarn.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
From this morning’s knot, a back is formed,
And grows, row by row, each stitch and loop of wool.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writes will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog.

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