Dot dot dot

Lena Dunham, Queen of the Millennials, is surely no stranger to the text-message ellipsis.

Lena Dunham, Queen of the Millennials, is surely no stranger to the text-message ellipsis.

Picture this. You arrange to meet a friend for a drink at five thirty, but then you get stuck at work and don’t leave the office until just after six. As you rush down the road towards the bar, you hear a text-message alert. Here’s the question: Out of these three options, which would be the worst thing to read?

(a) I’m here
(b) I’m here!
(c) I’m here …

If you’re a fellow millennial, I’m guessing you agree with me that option (c) is by far the worst. Option (a) is inscrutable – maybe a little annoyed, maybe just stating a fact. Option (b) is cheerful and a bit breathless – maybe she was running late herself and only just arrived. Option (c), though, is ice cold. It says, “I’m here. Where the $!%# are you?” or, “I’m here, and you’d better have a good excuse for being late,” or, “I’m here, crying in the bathroom because you stood me up.” Either way, it’s not good.

Here’s my point. In this age of instant digital communication, punctuation is all-powerful. The ellipsis – those three little dots at the end of option (c) – has taken on a whole new meaning. It’s wry, knowing, suggestive, self-deprecating or passive-aggressive. It stands for everything that is unsaid but implied. Essentially, it means “and you can imagine the rest”.

A lot of people find this punctuational sea change deeply distressing. I am not one of those people. I’m fascinated by the nuances we can convey with one piece of punctuation (or one emoji, for that matter). I think it’s remarkable – and kind of wonderful – that we as a generation have so quickly developed a new style of communicating. “Text speak” is not grammatical anarchy; it comes complete with its own set of rules, unspoken but generally understood.

But – and this is a big but – this modern way of communicating belongs online or on your phone, not in a published piece of writing. I’m happy to text my boyfriend a punctuation-free Hows your morning going, but I’m not happy to read a book that begins It was the best of times it was the worst of times it was the age of wisdom …

I haven’t yet encountered a young novelist whose manuscript is bereft of question marks or full stops. But I’ve definitely gone through several manuscripts Find-and-Replacing ellipses with full stops. Our liberal use of the ellipsis in texts, emails and Facebook updates has spilled over onto the page, and, at the risk of sounding old and stuffy, it just won’t do. So here’s a crash course on how to use the ellipsis correctly in formal writing (with the disclaimer that I fully support its “misuse” in angry texts).   

What does an ellipsis do?

First of all, let’s clarify that an ellipsis is one set of three dots (…). The plural, referring to multiple sets, is ellipses. If you’re writing a book, short story, essay, professional document or anything else formal, you should use ellipses for only two reasons:

(1) In quoted speech, to show that a section of the quotation has been omitted.

In a recent interview in PAPER magazine, Lena Dunham talked about her career trajectory, saying, “When I first came to Hollywood … the things that were being offered to me had absolutely nothing to do with what I had made or who I was.”

(2) In dialogue, to show that the speaker is pausing or trailing off.

HANNAH: My book. I’m almost done with my book. I mean, I basically have a draft, I’m just, like, getting the whole thing together …
TAD: We can talk more about this tomorrow.

Ellipses should never appear in the main body of your work – only when you are quoting someone else, either a real person or a character. This can be hard to grasp for some writers, who feel that ellipses add suspense or gravity to their narrative. But I firmly believe that a full stop is always, always more effective, and that scattering ellipses here, there and everywhere does nothing but make the writer look insecure, as if their words alone aren’t enough.

A few notes on usage

  • Use either the ellipsis symbol or three full stops with spaces between them. If you type three full stops (without spaces) in Microsoft Word, it will automatically turn it into an ellipsis, which it will then treat as a single punctuation mark. If you’re not working in Word, you might have to type it in manually: [full stop] [space] [full stop] [space] [full stop]. If you’re working to a style guide, check whether it has specific instructions for how to create ellipses.

  • Always leave a space on either side. This applies even if the ellipsis falls at the beginning or end of a sentence. If it comes directly before or after a full stop or other piece of punctuation, you must leave a space in between the punctuation and the ellipsis.

  • In dialogue, use ellipses when speakers trail off but not when they are interrupted. For a sudden interruption, use an em dash instead:
    DUNHAM: My germophobia has passed. It's expired.
    GROSS: How did that happen?
    DUNHAM: I feel really—
    GROSS: How’d that go away?

  • When using an ellipsis to show an omission, never change the meaning of the quotation. For example, here’s Lena Dunham talking about an argument with her father: “And then he was sort of describing – half admiringly, half with horror – the way that he didn’t feel like he could do anything without it being recycled into my work.” It would be a huge journalistic no-no to quote Dunham as saying: “And then he was sort of describing … with horror … that he didn’t feel like he could do anything without it being recycled into my work.”

In a nutshell

In anything more formal than a Facebook update, you should only use ellipses to: (a) show that something has been omitted from a quotation; or (b) show that a speaker has paused or trailed off. Either use the Word ellipsis symbol or type three full stops with spaces in between them, and always leave a space on either side of the ellipsis.