Writing…with Ellipses

By Mali Chowdhury

Ellipses…hmm, where to begin…

Well, let’s start with its basics: identification. What exactly are ellipses? In the most general sense, ellipses are a set of three consecutive dots found in both formal and informal writing. Typically, the arrangement of these dots looks a little something like “…”. Now that you can identify them, you’re probably wondering what exactly they do.

If you’ve read a fictional piece or two, you may have noticed that at times the characters have ellipses at the ends of their sentences. This is a tactic many authors utilize to indicate pauses in thought or speech (as you saw at the beginning of this post). Take this dialogue below as an example:

“I thought that maybe we could…”
“We could? We could what?”
“We could…”
“We could what?”
“We could… go watch a movie sometime?” he asked her, his cheeks flushing red.

Did you sense the hesitancy in the first character’s dialogue? As you can see, the characterization that can be developed through mere use of ellipses is endless.

Another use for the ellipsis, perhaps the more practical use in our academic setting, is the omission or condensation of a quote. When writing for academia, ellipses can aid in simplifying a quote to help in adhering to word count or avoiding using block quotations. However, one must NEVER, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, use ellipses to alter the meaning of a quotation – if you are omitting words from a quote, omit words that are redundant or unnecessary, not words that may change the interpretation of the quotation itself.

Here are two examples to show right from wrong:

Mahatma Gandhi, in the introduction of his autobiography, wrote “In judging myself I shall try to be as harsh as truth, as I want others also to be. Measuring myself by that standard I must exclaim with Surdas: ‘Where is there a wretch So wicked and loathsome as I? I have forsaken my Maker, So faithless have I been.’ For it is an unbroken torture to me that I am still so far from him, who, as I fully know, governs every breath of my life, and whose offspring I am. I know that it is the evil passions within that keep me so far from Him, and yet I cannot get away from them.”

Proper use of an ellipsis: “In judging myself I shall try to be as harsh as the truth, as I want others also to be…I know that it is the evil passions within that keep me so far from Him, and yet I cannot get away from them” (Gandhi, Introduction).

Improper use of an ellipsis: “In judging myself I shall try to be as harsh as the truth, as I want others…yet I cannot get away from them.”

As you can see from the two, the variations in interpretations are vastly different when omitting specific parts of the quote through an ellipsis. You should always take care to keep as true to the main assertion of the quote as you can – don’t besmirch someone’s memory by misquoting them into someone they’re not. They are used to omit, not to invalidate.

Those are the two main purposes of ellipses! To sum it up:

“Ellipses…are a set of three consecutive dots…to indicate pauses in thought or speech…[and] are used to omit, not to invalidate.”

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