English As She Is Writ - part twelve

Ellipsis . . .

Ellipsis is the use of three dots to indicate that some text is missing. It is used most often when a quoting from another source, for instance when one academic work quotes from another, or when a film advertisement quotes from a review. Here are two examples.

  • As Fitzherbert says in his 2013 work, ‘The role of the teacher, whether at primary, secondary or FE level, is to inspire and to entertain as much as to instruct.’
  • As Fitzherbert says in his 2013 work, ‘The role of the teacher . . . is to inspire and to entertain as much as to instruct.’
  • See this comedy if you must, but it’s hardly a rollicking good laugh.
  • See this comedy . . . a rollicking good laugh.

The second example demonstrates how omitting a few words can radically alter the meaning of the original text. Ellipsis must therefore be used with care.

Ellipsis is also sometimes used when transcribing or, in works of fiction, inventing speech, to indicate that the speaker has left something unsaid. This is, clearly, just a specific type of the above usage, in that the three dots indicate that words are missing. However the availability of this punctuation mark sometimes tempts writers into lazy writing. In works of fiction, in particular, writers may be tempted to use ellipsis to indicate that a character’s thoughts have dwindled away. And, because characters’ words and thoughts tend to fade away at moments of tension in a story, lazy writers use those little three dots all over the place to try to inject drama and suspense. Therefore I would tolerate using ellipsis in speech, very sparingly, but not when describing thoughts.

Here are two examples. In the first, ellipsis is used in direct speech to indicate that the speaker had intended to say more but had run out of words. I think that’s reasonable in this context.

In the second example ellipsis is used to indicate that the narrator’s thoughts have dwindled, in this case because he has fallen asleep. This is getting to be poor punctuation. Ellipsis, here, is actually less forceful than a full stop. The ellipsis encourages the reader to expect a surprise, which defeats the writer’s objective. A full stop is what the reader expects, so that when the narrator wakes up at gunpoint, the reader is as surprised as he is. Imagine that second example with a full stop in place of the ellipsis. It’s better, isn’t it?

‘But in that case,’ she said, her forehead creasing in a frown, ‘the murderer can only be . . . ‘
Her eyes widened as Jarrold produced a bloodstained knife.
I’d been sitting in the car for hours. There was nothing going on at the house, and by now I felt like I was in an oven. Perhaps I had time to take a nap . . .           
I woke up to feel the cold metal of a gun barrel against my neck.

I hope I don’t have to stipulate this, but just in case: ellipsis consists of three dots. Not two, not four, not any other number. There is never any justification for ending a sentence with a long dribble of dots . . . . . . . . .What can that possibly be supposed to convey?

It’s worth reiterating that unconventional punctuation is no substitute for precise writing. 

And on the subject of imprecise writing, the next instalment will, unless I’m sidetracked, deal with underlining: the go-to emphasiser for the imprecise writer.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.