How to Use an Ellipsis in Writing (Without Overusing It)

The ellipsis is an important punctuation mark. Sure, those three dots seem so tiny, so straightforward, and yet …

Some editors may view the ellipsis as lazy — a writer’s way out of completing a sentence or connecting two thoughts. They can certainly become an overused crutch and weaken your copy, but in some cases, the ellipsis is quite important, especially when it comes to quoting.

In this guide to the ellipsis, we’ll break down the basics then dive into using ellipses in your writing.

What are ellipses (and addressing ellipsis vs. ellipses)

Sometimes informally referred to as “those three dots,” Merriam-Webster officially defines ellipses as “marks or a mark (such as … ) indicating an omission (as of words) or a pause.”

In Latin and Greek, “ellipsis” means to fall short or leave out — an omission. At its core, that’s exactly how it’s used in grammar, to indicate words have been omitted or left out.

Now, there’s some confusion around ellipsis vs. ellipses, so let’s clear that up: Ellipses is simply the plural of ellipsis.

Example: The paragraph contains too many ellipses, but you do need an ellipsis in that quote.

The ellipsis is made up of three periods. But the way you format these will ultimately depend on the writing style guide or you’re following.

For instance the Associated Press (AP) style is three dots without any spaces ( … ), but The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and Modern Language Association (MLA) both put spaces between each period ( . . . ). When in doubt, consult the appropriate style guide.

How to use ellipses in quotations correctly

Have you ever wanted to use a quote from an interview, speech or text that’s just entirely too lengthy or rambling? Don’t worry: You’ve got the ellipsis.

With an ellipsis, you can omit words, phrases or sentences when you’re quoting. Note: You never want to omit words, phrases or sentences that will change the context or facts of a quote.

Additionally, as mentioned above, the intricacies of ellipses will vary by style guide and even publication. Here, we’ll be referring to the AP Stylebook.

For the following examples, we’ll refer to this Jane Goodall quote, pulled from her interview with Dax Shepard on a podcast episode of Armchair Expert:

“I know that if we all get together — we’ve got a window of time — we can start slowing down climate change, we can start healing some of the harm we’ve done. Nature is very resilient. We’re coming up with our intellect with, you know, more and more ways for clean, green energy, renewable energy. But the thing is, we don’t have that much time, so how do we get people involved? That’s why I work so hard on Roots & Shoots, and I’m so thrilled because so many children are changing their parents.”

This is a lovely passage from the podcast, but if we were writing an article recapping the interview or a story on Roots & Shoots, we likely wouldn’t want to include this entire quote — it’s a bit long. Instead, we could shorten the quote and indicate omissions with ellipses.

Below are a few examples of what that looks like.

1. Omit unnecessary words

When quoting someone from an interview, it’s rare you’ll encounter quotes without unnecessary words. That’s just how we speak. 

Here, we pulled three sentences from the larger quote, and we indicated an omission with the ellipsis.

“We’re coming up with more and more ways for clean, green energy, renewable energy,” Goodall says. “But the thing is, we don’t have that much time, so how do we get people involved? That’s why I work so hard on Roots & Shoots, and I’m so thrilled because so many children are changing their parents.”

The words omitted don’t add any context or important information to the sentence, so they’re OK to cut to keep the quote more focused and easier to read.

Note: In many cases, it’s acceptable to go ahead and omit “um,” “like” and other common filler words from quotes without using an ellipsis. This is pretty standard practice.

Per the AP Stylebook’s entry on quotations in the news: “Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.” So, basically, if you’re a journalist, be extra diligent with your quotes.

2. Omit unnecessary sentences

As humans, we have a way of winding around a topic, sometimes completing a thought and sometimes circling back to it. If you’re quoting someone from an interview, it’s likely you’ll run into quotes you want to use but that have some extra, unnecessary phrases or sentences.

So let’s say you want to cut an entire sentence from a quote. As long as you’re not changing the context of the quote or deleting important information, this is perfectly fine to do with an ellipsis. 

Take a look:

“I know that if we all get together — we’ve got a window of time — we can start slowing down climate change, we can start healing some of the harm we’ve done. But the thing is, we don’t have that much time, so how do we get people involved? That’s why I work so hard on Roots & Shoots, and I’m so thrilled because so many children are changing their parents.”

Note there’s a period at the end of the second sentence, then a space and then the ellipsis. That’s because you’re adding the ellipsis at the end of a grammatically complete sentence, so you must conclude it with a period, then indicate your omission with an ellipsis, per the AP Stylebook.

If the sentence ends with a different punctuation mark, like an exclamation mark, you’d follow the same sequence: exclamation mark, space, ellipsis.

It’s also worth noting the AP Style gods are OK replacing the ellipsis with an attribution, as such:

“I know that if we all get together — we’ve got a window of time — we can start slowing down climate change, we can start healing some of the harm we’ve done,” Goodall said. “But the thing is, we don’t have that much time, so how do we get people involved? That’s why I work so hard on Roots & Shoots, and I’m so thrilled because so many children are changing their parents.”

3. Omit unnecessary words and sentences

Putting the first two instances together, you can use an ellipsis to omit unnecessary words and sentences at the same time. Take a look:

“I know that if we all get together — we’ve got a window of time — we can start slowing down climate change But the thing is, we don’t have that much time, so how do we get people involved? That’s why I work so hard on Roots & Shoots, and I’m so thrilled because so many children are changing their parents.”

Because the ellipsis doesn’t come at the end of a complete sentence, there’s no need for a period and space after “change.”

If you have more specific questions about using an ellipsis in quotations, remember to consult a style guide or have a conversation with your editor. (They’ll likely love nerding out over this with you.)

So, how many ellipsis are you permitted to use per quote? It depends on what you’re writing and the publication, but we suggest not using more than one. Alternatives to the ellipsis include paraphrasing or using partial quotes.

Other instances to use ellipses

Like we mentioned, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using too many ellipses, so here are a few other instances when using ellipses in writing is appropriate.

To signify an incomplete thought

You can use an ellipsis to signify an incomplete thought, i.e. the writer or speaker trails off or moves to another topic without completing their thought.

Here’s an example:

“Everyone says it’s all about the journey, but these days, I don’t know. It just … Well, I guess my mom did always say everything happens for a reason, so …”

However, per AP style, you should substitute an em dash for this if you’re already using an ellipsis to omit words. In the example above, the speaker is simply trailing off and not completing their thought, so, in this case, the ellipses are appropriate.

To indicate a pause

Similar to the above point, an ellipsis is a great piece of punctuation to indicate a pause. It might look something like this:

“I’m not really sure exactly what I was thinking … It had been a long night, and I just needed some sleep.”

A final recap of the ellipsis

Although using ellipses can become a bad habit, there are many times they’re necessary.

When it comes to using an ellipsis in quotes, we’ll say it again: Never use the ellipsis to cut important information or details that might change the context of a quote.

If you’re using an ellipsis outside of a quote, ask yourself if you’re using it to indicate a pause or incomplete thought. Otherwise, you might be better off using a different piece of punctuation, like a period.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

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