are there supposed to be spaces between the dots in an ellipsis?

EVERY READER OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE has seen those three dots in the midst of an oth­er­wise normal sen­tence that tells them some­thing spe­cial is hap­pening. These dots are called an ‘el­lipsis’ and are usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with text quoted from an­other source. Most readers know that these dots in­di­cate that words in the orig­inal text have been deemed un­nec­es­sary and omitted from the quote. 1

The pur­pose of this essay is to clarify for readers and writers alike the way in which the el­lipsis is used in pro­fes­sional ty­pog­raphy and how that ap­plies to how we use it on blogs and websites.

 

Ummm, are there sup­posed to be these spaces be­tween those dots?

 

For most writers, the el­lipsis serves two pri­mary purposes:

1. In non-fiction, an el­lipsis is used within words quoted from an­other source to in­di­cate that words have been omitted from the orig­inal source.

2. In fic­tion, an el­lipsis is far more mal­leable and can have any number of mean­ings. Some of these are rea­son­ably es­tab­lished styl­istic de­vices (such as the el­lipsis at the end of a sen­tence) while others are wildly idio­syn­cratic and need to be learned through use with each author.

 

Ellipsis Cow 800

This clever il­lus­tra­tion was lifted from an ar­ticle ti­tled “El­lipse My Text …” by Kyle Simpson on the De­vel­oper Zone website.

Are there supposed to be spaces?

First, let’s ad­dress this essay’s title: “are there sup­posed to be spaces be­tween the dots in an ellipsis?”

Once upon a time, the an­swer was a simple ‘Yes.’

Today … well … not necessarily.

The modern el­lipsis can look two ways: open ( … ) and closed ( … ). The former is tra­di­tional, the latter a more re­cent cre­ation. 2

Those dots are periods!

Most readers and writers refer to the three dots in an el­lipsis as dots! But they’re not dots, and anyone fa­miliar with a key­board knows what they are:

Pe­riods.

And the el­lipsis con­sists of more than three pe­riods: de­pending on the choice of the writer, it may con­sist of as few as two parts or as many as six!

 

This clever car­toon is part of Scott Hilburn’s regular The Ar­gyle Sweater se­ries. (And if I were a car­toonist I’d be thinking, “I wish I had thought of this …”)

The closed ellipsis

The closed el­lipsis is less common but has been making headway for decades. It con­sists of three pe­riods without spaces be­tween them fol­lowed by a space ( ).

On a key­board that’s: pe­riod - pe­riod - pe­riod - spacebar.

Re­member that there is al­ways a space be­tween sen­tences; there­fore one of the two spaces does not count as part of the ellipsis.

The closed el­lipsis is a single ‘phys­ical’ unit—a glyph to typesetters—and can be cre­ated by in­serting a ‘spe­cial char­acter’ on some word-processors. 4

The open ellipsis

The open el­lipsis is the most common form of an el­lipsis. It is the one that every writer and am­a­teur type­setter cre­ates by stroking six keys on the key­board. 3

It con­sists of three pe­riods with three spaces (­ ). This is com­posed on a key­board as:

On a key­board that’s: pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar

Yes, there are four spaces in the el­lipsis within the paren­theses above, but there is al­ways a space be­tween two sen­tences! There­fore, one of the four spaces does not count as part of the ellipsis.

Un­less I am using an ex­ample below, from this point on, the open el­lipsis ( … ) is my de­fault el­lipsis for the rest of this article.

The ellipsis in non-fiction

In al­most every form of non-fiction text, an el­lipsis usu­ally in­di­cates one of two things:

•  Within a sen­tence, an el­lipsis usu­ally in­di­cates an omis­sion of sev­eral words.

•  Be­tween two com­pleted sen­tences, an el­lipsis usu­ally in­di­cates an omis­sion of at least one sen­tence. But it can mean en­tire sec­tions of text (i.e., hun­dreds of words) have been removed!

It is un­der­stood by the reader that these omis­sions are per­mis­sible as long as the re­sulting sen­tences do not alter the orig­inal meaning of the text!

That is, the state­ments re­sulting from the omis­sions should not be used out of con­text to bol­ster a point of view or ar­gu­ment that con­flicts with the orig­inal speaker’s intent.

 

Ellipsis abuse

The ellipsis in fiction

An el­lipsis in a sen­tence or para­graph in a work of fic­tion can in­di­cate many dif­ferent things to many dif­ferent au­thors. This includes:

•  a pause: “Well, you asked what I wanted for dinner … I kinda thought Old Forge pizza would be perfect.”

•  a ner­vous or awk­ward si­lence: “Well, I kinda thought Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner … but … uh … I didn’t know about .… you know … her condition.”)

•  an un­fin­ished thought: “Well, I kinda thought Old Forge pizza, you know …”

When an el­lipsis at the end of a sen­tence to in­di­cate an un­fin­ished thought that seems to trail off into si­lence, it is called apo­siopesis.

As I said, many au­thors use it in more idio­syn­cratic ways …

… which is fine as long as the reader un­der­stands what the writer in­tends its use to indicate.

After a completed sentence

For this next sec­tion, I am going to use the fol­lowing text lifted from the Wikipedia entry on An­cient Greek:

“An­cient Greek was the lan­guage of Homer and of clas­sical Athenian his­to­rians, play­wrights, and philoso­phers. It has con­tributed many words to Eng­lish vo­cab­u­lary and has been a stan­dard sub­ject of study in ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions of the West since the Re­nais­sance. This ar­ticle pri­marily con­tains in­for­ma­tion about the Epic and Clas­sical phases of the language.”

When quoting text from an­other source, many writers get con­fused as to when to use three pe­riods or four with their ellipsis.

When an el­lipsis is placed in a para­graph after a com­pleted sen­tence that ends with a pe­riod, the space be­tween the two sen­tences has four pe­riods and four spaces (.… ):

“An­cient Greek was the lan­guage of Homer and of clas­sical Athenian his­to­rians, play­wrights, and philoso­phers.… This ar­ticle pri­marily con­tains in­for­ma­tion about the Epic and Clas­sical phases of the language.”

On a key­board that’s: pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar.

 

Ellipsis solar2 800

Someone neatly used a trio of photos of our glo­rious Old Sol as an el­lipse in a brief piece ti­tled “Solar El­lipsis” on the Mul­berry & Bliss blogspot.

After a sentence fragment

When an el­lipsis is placed in a para­graph after an in­com­plete sen­tence (that is, the sen­tence has been edited mid-stream and is con­sid­ered a sen­tence frag­ment), the space be­tween the two sen­tences has only three pe­riods but still has four spaces ( … ):

“An­cient Greek was the lan­guage of Homer and of clas­sical Athenian his­to­rians, play­wrights, and philoso­phers. It has con­tributed many words to Eng­lish vo­cab­u­lary … This ar­ticle pri­marily con­tains in­for­ma­tion about the Epic and Clas­sical phases of the language.”

On a key­board that’s: spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar - pe­riod - spacebar.

The ellipsis and quotation marks

When an el­lipsis is used im­me­di­ately be­fore a quo­ta­tion mark, the final space is dropped:

“An­cient Greek was the lan­guage of Homer and of clas­sical Athenian his­to­rians, play­wrights, and philoso­phers. It has con­tributed many words to Eng­lish vocabulary …”

The final space after the third pe­riod was dropped. This is a fairly common usage.

When an el­lipsis is used im­me­di­ately after or be­fore a quo­ta­tion mark, one of the spaces is dropped:

After a brief de­bate among his fellow record col­lec­tors on the merits of ribs versus fish and chips, Neal made a rather con­vo­luted ar­gu­ment that fi­nally ended with “… and I kind of thought Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner.”

The first space after the quo­ta­tion mark and be­fore the first pe­riod is dropped. This usage is awk­ward; it is con­sid­ered un­nec­es­sary by many grammar and punc­tu­a­tion guides, who sug­gest omit­ting the el­lipsis and going with, “And I kind of thought Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner.”

I don’t like it and never use it.

Elvis_Clam_Meme600

When used in the lyrics from a record, an el­lipsis can also in­di­cate that in the recording there is a bar or two of music be­tween the lines. Which is the case in the meme above, where I used the opening lines from Elvis’s absurd/surreal Do The Clam from the Girl Happy movie (1965). Be­tween those two lines can be heard the bass, drum, and bongo in the backing track. 

The battle of the bands … er, the ellipses

The use of both open and closed el­lipsis is wide­spread, with in­di­vidual ty­pog­ra­phers having an op­tion with each project. But the mo­mentum ap­pears to be on the side of the closed el­lipsis: it’s more eco­nom­ical plus it ar­guably looks better and makes more sense.

And there is the fact that most soft­ware is set up so that if I type three pe­riods in a row sans spaces, most word-processors au­to­mat­i­cally con­vert the three sep­a­rate key­strokes into one unit.

Try it: type spacebar - pe­riod - pe­riod – pe­riod - spacebar ( … ). Then use the ar­rows in the lower right por­tion of your key­board to move back and forth through the el­lipsis. It doesn’t move through the periods—it skips over them!

 

Ellipsis Metzger2

Un­der­ground comix artist George Met­zger ex­per­i­mented with using var­ious ty­po­graph­ical sym­bols as a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the word bal­loons of some of hist strips. The above is from Moondog #2 (1971), but alas has only one bal­loon with an ex­tended el­lipse. Lifted from “George Met­zger Sample Page” on the Un­der­ground Comix Joint.

Modern trends in ellipsis

There are two ten­den­cies (trends?) in modern usage: one is to skip the space be­fore the first pe­riod in an el­lipsis (… ). I see it a lot in the sub­ti­tles to videos, both movies and tele­vi­sion series—especially with the closed ellipsis (… ):

Open: “Well, I kinda thought… you know, Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner.”

Closed: “Well, I kinda thought… you know, Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner.”

The other is part and parcel to the first, and that is to elim­i­nate the pe­riod at the end of a sen­tence when using an el­lipsis to in­di­cate a trailing thought:

Open: “Well, I kinda thought Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner…”

Closed: “Well, I kinda thought Old Forge pizza would be per­fect for dinner…”

Both of these ac­tu­ally make sense, es­pe­cially vi­su­ally, but I am not rec­om­mending it …

Yet.…

Alternative ending 1

Per­son­ally, I re­main tra­di­tional and al­ways use the open-space el­lipsis in my own writing. It is one of the few places in my life where people may ac­cuse me of being conservative …

Alternative ending 2

Per­son­ally, I re­main tra­di­tional and al­ways use the open-space el­lipsis in my own writing. It is one of the few places in my life where people may ac­cuse me of being conservative …

 

Ellipsis header900

FEATURED IMAGE: The lovely image that graces the top of this page is from El­lipsis Journal: “el­lipsis is a print-based plat­form for the ex­plo­ration of ideas through a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary ap­proach.… el­lipsis is open to all, whether you are in­ter­ested in the hu­man­i­ties or sci­ences, written or vi­sual work—we en­courage you to submit your ideas.”

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   The word el­lipsis is taken from the An­cient Greek elleipsis and means ‘falling short’—or more im­por­tant for writers and grammarians—it means ‘omis­sion.’

2   “Open” and “closed” are my terms, which I am using be­cause they make sense and are easily un­der­stood. (I am ever so tempted to call the open-look the spaced-out el­lipsis, but I won’t …)

3   Every self-published blogger is a type­setter to some degree.

4   A big ad­van­tage of using the glyph ver­sion of an el­lipsis is that it keeps the three dots to­gether at the end of a line.

 

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