Ellipsis Periods: Omission Possible and the Pause that Refreshes
I was in English composition class the first time I heard the term "ellipsis periods." I thought my English teacher had gone mad and decided to switch to astronomy. It sounded to me like some kind of solar eclipse where the sun got behind the moon and left a "lip" of itself to poke up on top like a huge boil on a bald guy's head. And it lasted for a certain time. Thus, ellipsis period. Made sense to me.
I was the class clown, so if I'd raised my hand when she'd asked what it was and answered, "It's a solar eclipse that looks like a boil on a bald guy's head," Mrs. Labarre would've assumed I was just looking for attention . . . and laughs, and kicked me out of class . . . again.
Ellipsis (plural ellipses) is from the Ancient Greek (that guy was really smart . . . and old) elleipsis, meaning "omission." It's merely a series of three periods with a space between them (. . .) inserted in a quotation to indicate that I've removed words from a quotation. This mark also indicates a pause in speech (my favorite use), or a thought that goes no where, or at the end of a sentence I can use it to show when a character's dialogue trails off into--are you ready for this?--aposiopesis. That's Greek for an apostrophe and ellipsis mixed--a punctuation mutt--meaning silence.
Here are some simple rules I've learned about using an ellipsis, which, for the purpose of omission, are generally used for legal writing, reporting and after a good night of drinking Tequila.
1. Omitting words in the middle of a quote: there are three periods with spaces between the periods and one before and after the ellipsis.
Complete Quote: When asked about the stabbing in his front yard, the neighbor stated, "So I was standing by the porch smoking a joint and this woman with a knife the size of a Hebrew National Salami attacked the poor guy."
Incorrect Use of Ellipsis: When asked about the stabbing in his front yard, the neighbor stated, "So I was standing by the porch. . .when this woman with a knife the size of a Hebrew National Salami attacked the poor guy."
Correct Use of Ellipsis: When asked about the stabbing in his front yard, the neighbor stated, "So I was standing by the porch . . . and this woman with a knife the size of a Hebrew National Salami attacked the poor guy." Note the space before and after the ellipsis.
2. Omitting words from the end of a quote: there are four periods; the ellipsis and a period.
Complete Quote: The Second Amendment provides that "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Incorrect Use of Ellipsis: The Second Amendment provides that "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms. . . "
Correct use of Ellipsis: The Second Amendment provides that "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms. . . ."
3. I don't know why, but it's incorrect to place an ellipsis at the beginning of a quotation so show omission. I think it looks rather cool and builds tension, but it's a no-no, so who am I to argue?
Incorrect Use of Ellipsis: John finished with ". . . and then I handed her dress back."
Instead: John finished with "and then I handed her dress back."
Pause that Refreshes
The Chicago Manual of Style states, "Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress or uncertainty. Heck, isn't that the definition of a teenager? "Hey, Maude, check out what those ellipsis points are doing on the corner over there! What's this world coming to?"
Okay, that's plain silly. But I'm having fun. Are you having fun? Okay, let's move on, because this is how I usually use ellipsis periods: to pause. For affect . . . for timing. It's perfectly all right to use dashes instead of an ellipsis (for affect--for timing), but, as the Manual states, dashes should be reserved for more "confident and decisive pauses." Does that mean ellipsis periods are reserved for self-conscious and indecisive pauses?
I can use the ellipsis to show pauses or interruptions in the speaker's--or my--train of thought:
As a pause for affect: Lawrence held his breath . . . until the water rushed his lungs.
As a pause for comic timing: Lawrence held his breath . . . then dropped and broke it.
As a pause in dialogue: "Hey, Larry . . . why are you turning blue?" Or: "Larry, I'm thinking if you keep holding your breath . . . the world will smell better . . . but you'll leave the world."
As an interruption in train of thought: Lawrence held his . . . pass the pork rinds, please.
Personally, I use dashes more than the ellipsis. Both, for me, are best for giving my writing rhythm. Only when I want to force the reader to hesitate, or to "hear" the silence in the dialogue do I use the dot-dot-dot. When I place an ellipsis at the end of a sentence, I can evoke a feeling of melancholy longing. Used sparingly, the ellipsis makes omission possible and can be the pause that refreshes my writing.
Thanks, CBS and Coke . . . . (Feel the longing?)