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May 2009 Up from Down Under

That Dotty Old Ellipsis


Ever wondered if you should leave spaces between the dots (points) of an ellipsis? Or perhaps you’re not sure about spaces before and after ellipses. I’ve done some research for you.


An established authority states:


“The ellipsis consists of three evenly spaced dots (periods) with spaces between the ellipsis and surrounding letters or other marks.”1


The traditional use of the ellipsis is to indicate the omission of a word or words from a quoted passage. In business or academic writing you may read something like this:


The minutes of the previous meeting … show that Professor Albert Anniston extended his apologies for the period of his sabbatical ….


The first ellipsis tells us that words such as “held on May 16, 2008,” have been omitted. The ellipsis at the end of the sentence shows the omission of words such as “May, 2008, to April, 2009”. Notice a full stop (period) appears after the second ellipsis to indicate the sentence concludes following the final omission.


In modern fiction the ellipsis has been adopted as a valuable tool for indicating pauses and trailing off in dialogue.


Consider the following examples:


1. ‘Tiernan! … Art thou alright?’ Tory crouched beside him.2


The ellipsis clearly indicates a pause between an exclamation and a question.


2. ‘Right . . . very good. Thanks,’ Dr Burrows said, picking up his tray and turning purposefully towards the dishwasher.3


A pause is indicated within one short sentence.


3. “And the breathless ones…”

“Who are they?”4


Two characters are speaking in this case. The ellipsis shows the first one paused rather than an interruption by the second, which would have been indicated by an em dash.


4. Very pale, he slowly lowered his arms, his eyes on Valentine—wide and pleading. “Father, I . . .”5


The ellipsis indicates a trailing off. The speaker hesitated in delivering an apology to his father for preventing him from killing his sister.


Interesting examples, aren’t they? But I picked them for a special reason. They illustrate the differences in the published format of ellipses. The first has no spaces between the dots (ellipsis points), but it does have spaces on each side of the ellipsis. The second has spaces before and after the ellipsis as well as spaces between the dots. The third has no spaces after the last word and no space before the quotation mark. The fourth is similar to the third, except there are spaces between the dots.


General usage in published novels differs from what authorities advise about ellipses. Think twice before you criticize someone for how they dot and space their ellipsis.






2- Harding, Traci: The Ancient Future. The Dark Age. HarperCollinsPublishers, Australia, 1996, page 471.


3- Gordon, Roderick & Williams, Brian: Tunnels. The Chicken House, United Kingdom, 2007, page 49.


4- Pullman, Philip: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass). Scholastic Children’s Books, London, page 108.


5- Clare, Cassandra: City of Bones. Walker Books, London, 2007, page 412.


 Les Stephenson copyright 2009