Mind Your Gaps: Ellipses and Quoted Material

 

When a set of period-dots—aka ellipsis points—appears in the middle of quoted material, it indicates that one or more words have been omitted. Easy enough, right? Actually, there’s a little more to it if you care about nuance in written communication.

Here, you will learn . . .

  • exactly what ellipsis points are
  • why we use ellipsis points
  • why you should use “the fourth dot”
  • how to use ellipsis points, including how to use them with other punctuation

While there is more to it than most people think, the main difficulty is in the explaining, not the doing. So bear with me. The examples will make things clear if my explanations don’t.

I’ve also managed to work in film director Werner Herzog. I know, it’s about time. Who doesn’t love “Verner”? Throughout, my example quotes are drawn from a UK Guardian interview with Herzog (a great read for fans).

What is an ellipsis?

An ellipsis comprises three “period-dots,” or “points,” with one space before, after, and between them. Typographically speaking, each dot in the set is identical to a period, but functionally speaking, ellipses have nothing whatsoever to do with periods. Yet these days I regularly see this:

Wrong: The Guardian writer recalled, “Whilst we were doing this interview. . .somebody shot you.”

The space before and the space after are missing. What you have is not an ellipsis, but a period (smack in the middle of the sentence!) followed by two stray dots. It should be like this:

Right: The Guardian writer recalled, “Whilst we were doing this interview . . . somebody shot you.”

Think of it this way: if the missing words represented by the ellipsis were present, there would be space between them and the surrounding words.

From whence comes this devolution? It’s possible that it’s been encouraged by the computer keyboard. The option key plus the semicolon key produces a 3-dot ellipsis as a unit (…), which prevents the dots from getting split up if the ellipsis occurs at the end of a line. Good idea. But it also means we don’t have to think about the spaces between the dots. Perhaps people have stopped thinking about the spaces before and after too. Use the single-stroke ellipsis (or close up three periods) if you must, but preserve those spaces on either side.

Why use ellipses?

It’s about getting to the point. Ellipses allow a writer to cut unnecessary or irrelevant parts of a quote while communicating having done so.

Original: “I interviewed you in Los Angeles and, as has now passed into urban legend, whilst we were doing this interview on a promontory overlooking Los Angeles, somebody shot you, on camera.”

Elided: The interviewer recalled, “I interviewed you in Los Angeles and . . . whilst we were doing this interview . . . somebody shot you, on camera.”

Ellipses are easy to misuse, both accidentally and deliberately. Take care not to misrepresent the full text.

Badly elided: The interviewer recalled, “I interviewed you in Los Angeles and . . . shot you, on camera.”

Embrace the fourth dot

There are two styles for using ellipsis points. The 3-dot style (aka the “I don’t want to think about it” style) calls for three period-dots whether the omission comes in the middle of or between sentences.

However, I recommend the 3-or-4-dot style (as do various esteemed style authorities). It calls for three dots when an omission comes in the middle of a sentence and for a fourth dot—not part of the ellipsis, per se, but an actual period—when an omission falls between full sentences or when the ellipsis ends a sentence.

The 3/4 style requires a moment of extra thought but also gives the reader more information. As I said, the fourth dot is merely a period. If you know how to use a period, the 3/4 style won’t give you any trouble—and the reader will know whether you’ve cut an entire sentence or set of sentences, or part of a sentence.

Rules and examples

Here’s a longer excerpt from the Guardian interview that we’ll work with for the rest of the lesson. Herzog is discussing his Oscar-nominated 2007 documentary set in Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World (New York Times review here). Nice to watch in July for its potentially cooling effect. Here it is:

I was forced to learn Latin and Greek when I was in high school, which I hated, but nowadays I like it. So now I’ve gone back to texts from antiquity and this film was largely influenced by Virgil’s Georgics. Virgil grew up as an impoverished farm boy in the vicinity of Mantua in northern Italy. And he writes about agriculture and about land life, and what he does in the Georgics is really magnificent. Because it doesn’t explain much; it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence in the stables of the goats. He describes the pruning of trees, the cattle in the field. He just names it, name after name, without explanation. He names the grandiose life out there in nature, in agriculture. And in a way, I had a similar feeling. “What do I do here in Antarctica?” And I said to myself, “I’ll do the same thing as Virgil would have done: describe the magnificence, one after another.”

RULE > The ellipsis comes in the middle of a sentence: use only the 3-dot ellipsis.

Original: “Virgil grew up as an impoverished farm boy in the vicinity of Mantua in northern Italy.”

Elided: Herzog said, “Virgil grew up as an impoverished farm boy . . . in northern Italy.”

RULE > The last quoted word before the ellipsis ends a sentence: follow it with a period, as you normally would, and then insert the 3-dot ellipsis.

Original: “I was forced to learn Latin and Greek when I was in high school, which I hated, but nowadays I like it. So now I’ve gone back to texts from antiquity and this film was largely influenced by Virgil’s Georgics. Virgil grew up as an impoverished farm boy in the vicinity of Mantua in northern Italy.”

Elided: Herzog said, “I was forced to learn Latin and Greek when I was in high school, which I hated, but nowadays I like it. . . . Virgil grew up as an impoverished farm boy . . . in northern Italy.”

RULE > The last quoted word before the ellipsis does not end the sentence:the three ellipsis points—with all their spaces—come first to indicate the gap, followed by that sentence’s period.

Original: “Because it doesn’t explain much; it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence in the stables of the goats. He describes the pruning of trees, the cattle in the field. He just names it, name after name, without explanation.”

Elided: He continued, “Because it doesn’t explain much; it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence . . . . He just names it, name after name, without explanation.”

RULE > No ellipsis necessary at the beginning or the end of a quotation.

The reader knows it is very likely part of a larger quotation. Is it important to communicate the omission? Use your judgment. You can even capitalize the new first word of an elided, but still grammatically complete, sentence.

Original: “Because it doesn’t explain much; it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence in the stables of the goats. He describes the pruning of trees, the cattle in the field. He just names it, name after name, without explanation.”

Elided: He continued, “It just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence . . . . the pruning of trees, the cattle in the field.”

RULE > In the middle of a quotation, DO respect the beginnings and ends of sentences.

In the next example, unlike the last, the word it is lowercased even though it begins a grammatically complete sentence because I need to indicate that the beginning of the original sentence is missing.

Original: “And he writes about agriculture and about land life, and what he does in the Georgics is really magnificent. Because it doesn’t explain much; it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence in the stables of the goats.”

Elided: Herzog said, “What he does in the Georgics is really magnificent. . . . it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence.”

RULE > Fragments don’t need ellipses.

Again, readers know they’re fragments. Below, note that because is lowercased now that it begins a fragment.

Original: “So now I’ve gone back to texts from antiquity and this film was largely influenced by Virgil’s Georgics. Virgil grew up as an impoverished farm boy in the vicinity of Mantua in northern Italy. And he writes about agriculture and about land life, and what he does in the Georgics is really magnificent. Because it doesn’t explain much; it just describes the magnificence of the beehive, the horror of a pestilence in the stables of the goats.”

Elided: Herzog describes the film as “largely influenced” by the Georgics, which he admires “because it doesn’t explain much.”

RULE > Question marks and exclamation points in the original quote get the fourth-dot treatment.

Just put them before or after the 3-dot ellipsis, depending on where the gap is. Exactly as described above for periods. You don’t have to include commas or semicolons—judgment call—but sometimes they make your sentence more readable.

Original: “And in a way, I had a similar feeling. ‘What do I do here in Antarctica?’ And I said to myself, ‘I’ll do the same thing as Virgil would have done: describe the magnificence, one after another.’ ”

Elided: “I had a similar feeling,” said Herzog. “ ‘What do I do here in Antarctica?’ . . . ‘I’ll do the same thing as Virgil would have done.’ ”

Elided: “I had a similar feeling,” said Herzog. “ ‘What do I do here . . . ?’ And I said to myself, ‘I’ll do the same thing as Virgil.’ ”

Original: “He just names it, name after name, without explanation.”

Elided: “He just names it, . . . without explanation.”

Elided: “He just names it . . . without explanation.”

In the next example, “which I hated” is a parenthetical phrase in the original, so it’s best to keep the comma before as well as the one after.

Original: “I was forced to learn Latin and Greek when I was in high school, which I hated, but nowadays I like it.”

Elided: “I was forced to learn Latin and Greek . . . , which I hated, but nowadays I like it.”

These examples should cover most situations. For even more detail on using ellipses, I recommend Edward D. Johnson’s Handbook of Good English. The more I read this guide, the more I appreciate it.

Next time, we’ll look at ellipses’ other uses: to indicate pauses and trailing speech. Especially good to nail down if you write fiction.

P.S. Check out another Herzog film that uses mesmerizing footage from Antarctica, The Wild Blue Yonder.