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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 . . .
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.”
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.