August and the Ellipsis

Ellipsis is the punctuation mark that deals with what is not said. It makes the reader do the work of the writer. Ellipsis is about absence, omission, silence. It is ….

The Oxford English Dictionary calls ellipsis the ‘omission of one or more words in a sentence, which would be needed to complete the grammatical construction or fully to express the sense.’ A common form is verbal-phrase ellipsis: ‘Someone was singing La Marseillaise, but I don’t know who.’ Word’s software wants to correct that to ‘I don’t know whom.’ However, the full formulation is ‘but I don’t know who was singing La Marseillaise’.

Verbal-phrase ellipsis is a grammatical structure not a punctuation mark. Were that included, the sentence would read: ‘Someone was singing La Marseillaise, but I don’t know who ….’ That, however, would say something different. It would or could mean: ‘Someone was singing the French national anthem, but I am not going to tell you who it was though, in fact, I know who it was.’ That is a lot of meaning for three dots to carry. In speech, those dots would have to be conveyed by an inflection, a wink, a nod, or a nose tapping.

There is a variant on verbal-phrase ellipsis called pseudogapping: ‘Some brought roses and some did lilies’. An auxiliary verb, ‘did’, slips into the pseudo-gap, ‘brought’ is omitted, we almost hear ‘Some brought roses and some did lilies bring’, and we complete the thought ‘Some brought roses and some brought lilies’. It is wonderful how mind and syntax work.

Remarkably, when Oxford talks about ellipsis as a punctuation mark, it merely says that formerly ‘ellipsis’ was ‘used as the name of the dash (—) employed in writing or printing to indicate the omission of letters in a word.’ The example given is from the eighteenth century: ‘The k-ng’ for ‘The king.’ A twenty-first century example of the elliptical dash would be ‘f-ck-ng’. The tabloid ellipsis replaces the dash with the asterisk to emphasize the emotional distress of the journalists forced to record such language.

In the nineteenth century, the elliptical dash was used to suggest and suppress names simultaneously. Calling characters Lord R— and Lady S— evoked high society and low morals. Anthony Trollope was fond of the elliptical dash. Barchester Towers began ‘In the latter days of July, in the year 185-, […] as the ministry of Lord— was going to give place to that of Lord—’. The novel was published in 1857, and the short dash in the date promised topical revelations. The long dashes for the interchangeable lords put them in their place, making readers feel superior to their superiors.   

In an old-fashioned way, the ellipsis overlaps the dash (‘the k-ng’). In a new-fashioned way, the ellipsis overlaps the comma. Mary Norris, Comma Queen of New York, points to the newsfeed that circles One Times Square. In it, three-dot ellipses separate one news item from another: ‘… China’s Brand New Islands … Nutella, Ricky Gervais, a Dog-Eating Festival … Summer Solstice Brings Glorious Sunshine …’ Norris has a point, but commas would not do since they are needed for their regular job in the item about Ricky Gervais and the Nutella-Dog-Eating Festival.

The three-dot ellipsis in the Trollope quotation is not Trollope’s. It has been interjected, and it shows a kind of ellipsis used more frequently than the elliptical dash. The three-dot ellipsis has various additional names: points of suspension, points of ellipsis, periods of ellipsis, the dot-dot-dot. Like other punctuation marks, the three-dot ellipsis has its variations, its rules, its overlaps, and its idiosyncrasies.

One variation is between the middle of the sentence ellipsis and the end of the sentence ellipsis.  In the middle of a sentence, an ellipsis is placed between two spaces. At the end of a sentence, there is a space before the dots but no space between the dots and the full stop.  (Ellipses are not meant to be used at the beginning of sentences so no rule is given for placing an ellipsis there except the rule that says: Don’t do it. The three-dots at the apparent beginning of the Times Square newsfeed represent the fact that a newsfeed has no beginning and no end.)

A crucial elliptical variation is that between the bracketed and the unbracketed kinds. The unbracketed ellipsis - … - gives expression to unspoken thought; it is a creative ploy.  The bracketed ellipsis - […] - tells the reader that material originally present has been omitted; it is an editorial device. The bracketed ellipsis takes liberties with quotations, but it should not take too many liberties.

Abraham Lincoln said: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’  If we want to quote Lincoln, leaving out part of what he said, we must not change his meaning and we must not disrupt his grammar.

We can say: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation  [...] dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ We cannot say: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,  [...], and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

Quotation should not be distorted by improper use of ellipsis but that is often enough done, usually to damage the reputations of celebrities and politicians. Herb Caen, once of the San Francisco Chronicle and a great user of the ellipsis, wrote a daily column that came to be called ‘three-dot journalism’. Caen might be an called ellipsist, someone ‘addicted to the use of the figure Ellipsis’, but the Oxford English Dictionary calls ‘ellipsist’ a ‘nonce word’, meaning it has been used only the once. It cites a quotation from 1859. However, the word appears in the online Urban Dictionary. There, ellipsists are denounced both for overusing ellipsis and for using more than three dots at a time. The point is made by this example: ‘WHY CANT YOU SEE WHAT IAM TRYING TO SAY......? I AM MAKING IT AS CLAER AS POSSIBLE AN D STILL YOU DONT UNDERSTAND.....! ITS SOOOOOOOO SIMPLE....YOU MUST BE VERY DUMB..’ Misuse of ellipsis is not the only and not the worst fault of that writer.

American publishers like to put spaces between their dots. The British generally do not, but they share, to some extent, the Continental practice of distinguishing between points of omission and points of suspension. Points of omission are indicated by three spaced dots. Points of suspension are indicated by three closed dots. Three closed dots mean that something needs to be added by the readers. They are nudged towards an irony, an innuendo, a threat. Sometimes, the three dots mean that the speaker is running out of words. Sometimes, the three dots mean that the speaker could go on and on.

Mathematicians enjoy four kinds of three-dot ellipses: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and anti-diagonal. They show missing ranges in integers and squares and such like, but they suffer from the fact that not all mathematicians mean the same things by these esoteric ellipses. Their use is discouraged.

Beyond the dash and the dot, there is the ellipsis represented by asterisks. Three of them appearing centre page between paragraphs indicate time passing in a novel or thoughts changing in an essay.


The most economic ellipsis is the Twitter ellipsis. It counts as one character not three, and it is produced by Alt + semicolon: …. The most expansive ellipsis is the verse ellipsis: multiple dots represent a line that has been omitted:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;

Dots can take care of missing words, lines, and even paragraphs, but what kind of ellipses can take care of Thomas Watson, a playwright of the 1570s? All his works have been lost. They are witnessed by no more than cryptic references and implications in various documents. More extreme is the case of the Welsh poet certainly greater than Shakespeare but for whom there is not only not a single line of his work left, his name has been lost to boot. There are gaps beyond the registering of dots.


Next Month’s Punctuation Mark: In September, the English Project will tell the story of the Exclamation Mark.




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