Wait for it… (Ellipses)

Oops, it’s been a while. Man, remember when I used to post here once a year and use that gif of Mushu going “I LIIIIIIIIIIVE” every time I returned? Good times.

Anyway, today we’re taking a long-overdue look at ellipses. Ellipses probably don’t inspire the same passions that em dashes tend to, either for or against, but you can find their supporters and detractors.

An ellipsis is a set of three dots (…). In academic writing, an ellipsis indicates missing text in a quotation. For example, let’s say I’m writing a post on craft and want to quote the following passage from Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages on showing vs telling.

If a writer tells us his character is a crook, then he is a crook. But if the writer shows the character taking a twenty-dollar bill, it is up to us to decide if he is a crook. Most of us will assume he is, but some of us may consider other possibilities

The First Five Pages, 120

I may not want to use this whole passage, but I can’t just cut lines from the text without indicating that I’ve done so: that would misrepresent what the author says.

(Misrepresentation isn’t much of an issue in this particular case, but you can see how this is a serious problem when quoting a political or academic source and misrepresenting their arguments or conclusion.)

Ellipses are a quick way to tell your readers “there’s text missing here that I chose not to quote for Reasons.” With the above quote, here’s what this looks like:

…if the writer shows the character taking a twenty-dollar bill, it is up to us to decide if he is a crook…some of us may consider other possibilities.

The First Five Pages, 120

Notice that I used an ellipsis both at the beginning, where I cut the first word of the sentence I started with, and another in the middle, where I cut a more significant portion. If I quoted this as part of an original sentence rather than a block quote of the borrowed text, I could do away with the first ellipsis, like so:

However, Noah Lukeman points out that “if the writer shows the character taking a twenty-dollar bill, it is up to use to decide if he is a crook…some of us may consider other possibilities.”

But if you’re starting a block quote at some point mid-sentence, you should use an ellipsis to indicate that you’ve clipped the beginning.

In fiction, ellipses can be used similarly – most often in dialogue or thought. If a character starts a thought but doesn’t complete it, you can use an ellipsis to indicate that the thought is incomplete.

Of course, em dashes also do this, so what’s the difference? While em dashes indicate a sudden interruption or breaking-off, ellipses are slower. They tend to make it feel like the character’s speech or thought is more trailing off than breaking off. Because they slow the line down and draw the eye, it’s best to use them sparingly.

Disclaimer: Em dashes also draw the eye and should be used sparingly (I say begrudgingly, as if I don’t use em dashes at every possible turn). But since they don’t draw the eye as much and don’t slow the pace, they probably don’t need to be used as sparingly as ellipses.

Or possibly that’s my bias slipping through.

Because ellipses indicate a trailing off, they can also be used when a character has completed a thought. Using an ellipsis rather than a period allows you to complete a thought without the same sense of finality: perhaps the character is speaking slowly; perhaps they’re unsure of themselves; perhaps they’re waiting for or allowing someone else to enter the conversation.

Let’s take a look at some examples from the Chosen Grandma story to get a feel for how ellipses function and what effect they achieve. As a note, in a manuscript of 99,000 words, I only used 55 ellipses (as opposed to I’m-not-telling-you how many em dashes because I’d embarrass myself). Of those 55, almost all of them appear in dialogue – only 6 do not. You could probably balance your use of them a little more than I do, but I find ellipses in narration, especially third-person narration, generally awkward and distracting. They feel more natural in dialogue.

Okay. That said, let’s take a look at the examples.

“Now, now, Mrs. Fisher, you really should consider participating. At your time of life, it’s important to…”

Edna tuned out as Jeanine droned on.

In this first example, the speaking character doesn’t actually trail off, but Edna stops listening. She doesn’t suddenly stop hearing Jeanine; it’s more that Jeanine’s speech gradually fades into the background. I like ellipses any time a character’s speech fades into the background this way. Maybe the character they’re talking to stops listening; maybe the speaking character devolves into muttering to themselves. Either way, the effect is more accurate to what I’m picturing than if I used a more abrupt punctuation mark.

Methodius fidgeted with the sleeves of his robe and said in lofty tones, “Well, if you don’t have any questions…”

Here, the speaker is inviting response, e.g. potential questions (although he’s definitely hoping Edna doesn’t have any). Additionally, the thought is (technically) incomplete.

“Yeah, okay,” Benjamin said. “I mean…I like my residents.”

In this case, the ellipsis comes in the middle of the line to indicate a pause. I could have actually written “he paused,” but an ellipsis makes it unnecessary.

(Even if I had written “he paused,” I probably would’ve used an ellipsis after “I mean” to show him trailing off before the pause.)

“Are you sure?” Edna asked. “Are you sure it doesn’t…there aren’t any…long-term effects?”

Edna’s hesitant here – you can see that the first ellipsis ends an incomplete thought, while the second interrupts a complete thought. In both cases, Edna’s speaking slowly, hesitating, maybe pausing a bit.

Finally, here’s an example from non-dialogue.

Focus, Clem told herself, but the longer she ran, the fuzzier her sense of direction grew. Edna. She had to find Edna. She had to find…


This is fairly typical of how I use ellipses in non-dialogue: they usually occur in character thoughts, when the character’s thinking is fuzzy or unfocused. The thoughts are hard to hold onto but not tumbling through their minds or replaced by other thoughts.

For comparison, here’s the same example with an em dash.

Focus, Clem told herself, but the longer she ran, the fuzzier her sense of direction grew. Edna. She had to find Edna. She had to find—


How does the em dash change things? To me, it feels less like Clem’s thoughts are fuzzy and unfocused, more like the dialogue interrupts her thinking. Which is a valid effect I might want to achieve elsewhere! But not here. You could do this with any of the above examples – replace the ellipsis with an em dash and see how things change.

Basically, the ellipsis creates a slowing effect in speech or thoughts, a feeling of incompleteness without sudden interruption, or a feeling of expectancy or incompleteness even when the thought has actually been stated in full. To my knowledge, we don’t have another punctuation mark that achieves this effect, so ellipses definitely have a place! But because they’re so impactful, they should be used sparingly. As in my other grammar posts, I suggest trying out different punctuation marks – ellipses, em dashes, and periods – to see which mark makes the most sense for what you hope to achieve at any particular moment!

One thought on “Wait for it… (Ellipses)

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