Ellipses: A Quick Explanation

Ellipses Comic
Ellipses Comic

  When I was in Advanced Creative Writing in college, my most incredible professor queried, “When do we use ellipses?” (You know, the dot-dot-dot?)

No one raised his hand.

Being the teacher’s pet, I slid mine into the air and said, “Mainly, it’s used in novel writing for leaving an eavesdropped conversation.”

“Will you elaborate?”

I thought for a moment and said, “For example, a character is listening in to some adults talking. The reader sees what the character overhears, but as the character leaves, the reader will see ellipses at the end of their conversation, indicating that the character has left and can no longer hear the conversation.”

He nodded his head and said, “That’s exactly right.”

When I picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at nineteen, I read paragraphs where 11-year-old Francie Nolan would listen in on her mother’s conversations with other women. She would hide and listen until the conversation got boring, and then leave. Each time this happened, there were ellipses.

Now, we see ellipses being used for pauses in thought, omission of words, quotations, and more. I am guilty of overusing ellipses. I admit it.

So, when is it appropriate to use ellipses?

I consulted my 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and thank you, Copyediting 301, for torturing me with this book of death. Don’t get me wrong—this is the final word on editing, but in college, I wanted to light it on fire, followed by some sort of triumphant war dance. Just kidding. But seriously.

Look at all that underlining.


There are three different methods, but I will only bore you with the three-dot method. Why are ellipses used? “For the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage.”

If I were to write down my all-time favorite quote from Mark Twain but could only remember certain parts of it, I would use ellipses. Like so:

“I often want to criticise [sic] Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader . . . ; Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Leave it to Mark Twain to constantly keep it real, even in the late 1800s.

After a headache or two, I finally found in The Chicago Manual of Style that one could use ellipses for pausing or faltering. It recommended using it sparingly, however.

Here’s an example:

“But . . . but . . . I . . . I don’t know how!”

See the uncertainty here? That is the difference between using ellipses and em dashes. Save em dashes for when the speaker is more certain, more secure. For example, “I will be there—even though I don’t know what to do—whether you like it or not.”

Phew! There is more to learn about ellipses, but I like to keep things short and simple. Have you seen ellipses used in other ways?