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Friday, March 6, 2009

Third in a Series 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 column, a little (digestible) piece at a time. Today he'll talk about using ellipses with other punctuation in dialogue.

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.

Punctuating Ellipses in Dialogue

Punctuation is perhaps the most elusive of all aspects of correct use of ellipses. The rules for punctuating ellipses in dialogue and quotations are different. I hope that the examples, combined with an explanation of the theory of what ellipses intend to achieve, will make it easier for all to understand and punctuate them correctly. I would welcome feedback on how to make it clearer.

In dialogue, the terminal period is omitted if it comes at the end of a complete element of dialogue.

Example: The witness told the investigator, “He hit me with something and I ...”

Note in the example that one blank space precedes the ellipses, but no blank space—or period—separates the final dot of the ellipses from the close quotes. What this is telling the reader is that the witness’ remark just trails off and has no formal ending. If we’d added a period, it would have suggested an ending with omitted material—as though the witness said more, but the author omitted it.

However, and also in dialogue, ellipses that come within the conversation (not at its end) are punctuated by periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points.

Example: “I didn’t know what ... I mean, I couldn’t know, could I? ... How could I ... ,” she began. “I was hit, you know, from ... I can’t even think of what ...”

Remember that ellipses indicate incomplete utterances, pauses, or omitted material. In this example, the first ellipses shows that the speaker is confused, perhaps dazed, and her first attempt at a sentence trails off (I didn’t know what ... I mean). Then she recovers and poses a question (I mean, I couldn’t know, could I?). Then she pauses again (could I? ... How could). She’s still confused, but the author adds a tag line to break up the pace a little (How could I ... ,” she began). Note the comma follows a space after the last dot in the ellipsis and before the close quotes. One blank space would also precede a question mark or exclamation point following ellipses that indicated that a question or an exclamatory statement remained unfinished.

Then the witness statement continues with some hesitancy (I was hit, you know, from ... I can’t even). It ends with another trailing off remark (I can’t even think of what ...” Three dots of the ellipses, no period, close quote). Again, remember that the three dots of the ellipsis without the ending period mean that she just trailed off, not that the author omitted something the character said.

Boyd Sutton is producer and editor of the Wisconsin Writers’ Journal, a quarterly publication of the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association . His articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines. He is a freelance editor and has won many writing awards, including the Jade Ring, Wisconsin’s most prestigious writing award, for his essay, “Owning Your Own Time—Managing Your Retirement.” He may be reached at This article first appeared in the 2008 winter edition of the Wisconsin Writers’ Journal.

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 writers 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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