What is an Ellipsis?

An ellipsis is punctuation that can be used to cut down lengthy quotations, making it easier to focus on relevant points in a passage of text. It is composed of three dots, like this:

‘…’

Read on to find out more about how ellipses can be used in your written work.

The Ellipsis in Academic Writing

In formal writing, we insert an ellipsis in a quotation to indicate where an omission has been made. Ellipses can also be used multiple times to shorten a paragraph, such as in this example taken from Clive James’ book Cultural Amnesia:

There is a consoling mythology … which would have us believe that genius operates beyond donkey work. Thus we are told reassuringly that … Shakespeare didn’t care about grammar … Shakespeare, far from being careless about grammar, could depart from it in any direction only because he had first mastered it as a structure.

The original paragraph contained more examples of genius in list form, including Einstein and Mozart, but the ellipses allow us to make the quotation more concise.

Some style guides stipulate that ellipses should be enclosed within square brackets to show that the original text has been edited, just as all other edits by authors are indicated by square brackets. Some now consider this outdated, however, so be sure to check your university’s style guide before using them.

When using an ellipsis, the sentence should still make sense after you’ve made edits. Cutting a verb, for instance, could be problematic, as the quotation might not make sense any more. Check carefully that what you omit is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence.

Informal Uses

In some cases, an ellipsis can also be used to create a pause, perhaps for comic effect or dramatic tension. In these cases, an ellipsis is used much like a comma and should be followed by a space after the omission, but not before:

They think it’s all over… it is now!

It can also be used to indicate speech trailing off:

I wonder if maybe I could…

Generally, though, it would be unusual to use an ellipsis like this in formal writing.

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