Points of Ellipsis: Beyond Omissions


The last class explained what exactly points of ellipsis are (need a refresh?) and how to use them to indicate omissions in quoted material. But ellipsis points have other uses. The two main ones:

1. To indicate a trailing off of speech or thought
2. To indicate a pause

When your sentence trails off

You start a sentence or thought and fail to finish it. It has vanished, along with all memory of the location of your glasses. Or, let’s be generous, you simply lost interest. Or maybe your longtime companion excels at reading your mind, so you just let him or her mentally finish what you started. This is the way we talk, the way we think. Ellipsis points let us express this reality in writing.

I was going to pay you back, but . . .
Oops, out of plausible excuses.

I’m going to the store for onions, avocados, cilantro . . . Do you need anything?
The list keeps going, but no need to run through the whole thing.

The twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary weigh . . .
The reader/listener is being asked to fill in the blank (150 pounds).

I read this great article yesterday about . . .
Looks like a case of plain-old brain freeze.

Can you get the thing and put it in the, uh . . . Yeah, thanks.
Ditto. You know, the thing. In there.

Most of the time, you’ll want to use just the three spaced ellipsis points, no period. After all, if the sentence is complete, it’s not trailing off, is it? Nevertheless, occasionally you may want to indicate that something continues following a complete sentence:

He read from Cindy Lou’s favorite Dr. Seuss story: “From near to far, from here to there, funny things are everywhere. . . .” She finally dozed off around “our pet Zeep.”

Or that something remains unsaid:

If only things could be like they were before. . . .

Note that the presence or absence of a period can change the interpretation. Above, the sentence structure suggests that before means before now. Left incomplete, the sentence suggests that it means before a specific time or event left unspoken:

If only things could be like they were before . . .

To indicate a pause

For a pause in the midst of a sentence, use three ellipsis points.

And the winner is . . . Laura MacKay!

Some thought, some . . . thing was taking over her brain.

Let’s see, that’ll be . . . fifteen dollars.

When the sentence ends before the pause, use the period that goes with the sentence, followed by the three ellipsis points.

Okay, hand me that wrench. . . . Thanks. If I can just . . . turn . . . Okay, got it.

The unheard side of a phone conversation, experienced by the listener as a pause, is traditionally indicated by points of ellipsis. This example contains both unheard conversation and pauses:

“May I speak with someone in customer service? . . . Yes, I’ll hold. . . . Hello? . . . No, I need customer service. . . . Yes, I’ll hold. . . .”

As you can see, ellipsis points can communicate a great deal. Just remember that, like so many devices and marks of punctuation, they’re most effective used sparingly. If you don’t need to say it, maybe you don’t need to show that you’re not saying it!