Ellipsis header 1500 crop2

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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