When you see three dots together (like this: …), this is called an ellipsis. Because of English’s entertaining grammar rules, the plural of ellipsis is ellipses (just like other words that come from Greek and end in -is).
Whenever you see this, it means that something is missing. You usually see these in non-fiction, but we will talk mostly about how to use them in fiction. If an ellipsis come at the end of a sentence, it has four dots since there are three for the ellipsis and one for the period. You might wonder if you should put spaces between the dots or put them all together. It’s a matter of style, really. I like to put spaces between them to emphasize them a bit more. Listen to your heart.
As I said, ellipses are most often used in non-fiction to show that something is left out. The most common way is in a quote, where the quote has a part that isn’t relevant to what you want to show. For example:
When I was fifteen and living with my grandparents in a shack on the edge of town, I would go to mechanic shops and eat their free cashews and steal small pieces of metal. People said I was nuts.
When I was fifteen . . . I would go to mechanic shops and eat their free cashews and steal small pieces of metal.
Here we take out the part about living with the grandparents since it’s not important to what we want to talk about. Also, even though there are two sentences in the original quote, we don’t have to put an ellipsis for the second sentence. You only need to use ellipses when taking out part of a sentence.
Two things to remember when using ellipses like this:
- You still have to make a grammatical sentence. If you just take out random words, people will not understand what you are trying to say. In the example above, we can’t say: When I was fifteen . . . go to mechanic shops . . . That doesn’t make any sense.
- You have to keep the original meaning. Don’t take out words that are going to totally change what the original quote was saying. For example: When I was fifteen . . . I would . . . eat . . . small pieces of metal. This is the equivalent of cutting up a magazine to write your own message.
Ellipses are not used that often in fiction. The most common way to use them is in dialogue when someone trails off or talks in a hesitant way. I talked a bit about that in my post on The Dash. The difference is that when you use a dash, it is a sharp break in speaking, like if you hang up the phone. An ellipsis is used when the speaker trail off more slowly. This might be because of embarrassment, shyness, or because they don’t know what to say. For example:
“No, wait, there’s more,” the owl protested. “I know more than just who done it, I know—” One of my men had punched him in the beak. They dragged him back outside. He’d be roosting with the crows by nightfall.
“So who were you really with last night at the Olive Garden?” my wife demanded.
“No . . . listen, it’s not like that,” I stammered. “You see . . .” I sagged. How was I supposed to explain that my wife had traveled back in time from a month in the future to help me plan her own surprise birthday party?
Other Uses in Fiction
As I said, the most common way to use ellipses in fiction is in dialogue. It is possible to use it in other parts of writing, such as exposition or description. However, since we think of it mostly with dialogue, if you do this, it would only work with a very conversational style, as if the storyteller were chatting with the reader. Let me give you an example:
Happy-Lee grew up on a jungle island with a population of 750. The people there were . . . well, they were interesting. For one thing, the population had to be exactly 750. If a baby was born, someone had to leave, usually the one that the chief liked the least. If someone died, they’d go kidnap someone and bring them to the island, just to keep the population 750. And as for the chief . . . just don’t get on his bad side.
You wouldn’t have to use ellipses like this, but as you can see, it creates a very conversational style and also gives the idea that the storyteller is hesitating. This could be because they are trying not to be rude or to show that the subject is something very difficult to explain.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.