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An Unholy Love: Me and My Ellipses

I recently re-read my novel Ravenmarked, and I had a rather eye-opening realization:

I have an unholy love of ellipses.

It’s always kind of scary to read things you wrote sometime back and find your “writing tic”. I think all writers have them. I know I have several, and I regularly search and destroy (or edit) them, but I had never realized that ellipses were one of them. And I don’t just use them in my fiction—I use them in e-mail, on Facebook and Twitter, in texts . . . See, I just did it again. Perhaps this unholy love is simply an indication of the affliction I like to call Mommy Brain, wherein thoughts trail off in random directions and never finish. In any case, now that I’ve confessed my tic, I thought I’d take a closer look at ellipses and how to use them.

Formal Usage

People use ellipses in informal writing all the time, so it’s worth reviewing the rules briefly, especially since so many of us do book reviews or quote other bloggers. The most common formal usage of ellipses is to take out part of a sentence when quoting someone else. However, there are some rules for how to do this.

Use To Show An Omission

Ellipses are commonly used by journalists or academic authors who want to preserve space. If you have a quote that’s especially long, and you want to trim word counts, ellipses are a perfectly acceptable technique. However, the second rule is essential: You must never eliminate words or phrases that are essential to the meaning of the quote. For instance, here’s a quote from ChrisMB’s review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

“And thus begins Harry’s descent into the wizarding world and the truths behind his origins: of how his family was murdered by the dark lord Voldemort, a man whose name is still not mentioned for fear of the man himself, and how Harry somehow defeated said dark lord when he was but a baby.”

If you wanted to shorten the quote for space reasons, you would need to use ellipses where they would not change the meaning of the quote. The following would be proper:

“And thus begins Harry’s descent into the wizarding world and the truths behind his origins: of how his family was murdered by the dark lord Voldemort . . . and how Harry somehow defeated said dark lord when he was but a baby.”

We can eliminate the part about how Voldemort’s name still isn’t mentioned because all it really does is add a layer of detail to how awful Voldemort is. Eliminating that clause doesn’t change the basic meaning of the sentence. You couldn’t, however, do this:

“And thus begins Harry’s descent into the . . . truths behind his origins:”

Eliminating the words “wizarding world” changes the essential meaning of that sentence. The author’s intent was that we know Harry entered the wizarding world, so we don’t have the right to change that intent.

I admit there’s some level of subjectivity to this, but if you use common sense and care, you can preserve the integrity of your quotes. When in doubt, err on the side of the original author.

Informal Usage

I call this “informal,” but I don’t want you to think I mean “unacceptable.” Using ellipses in your fiction isn’t the same as writing in “text speech” or something. Ellipses are allowed as long as they’re not overused (which I did in Ravenmarked—gulp). You can use ellipses in the following ways:

Pauses In Dialogue
This is the way I used them most often. There are times in dialogue where you need to indicate a pause, but not a long enough pause for the character to do something else. Ellipses are handy for that. Here’s an example from Ravenmarked:

“Your mother’s clothes are lovely, but she was a slender woman, and I’m . . . not.”

The point of those ellipses was to show my character Igraine’s very brief hesitation as she considered what to say next. She knows she’s not thin, but she’s speaking to a man she just met, and she doesn’t know exactly how to admit what they both know. That little hesitation shows us something about her character, so it’s good, but it’s not a long enough pause for her to turn away or gesture or something like that.

Trailing Thoughts
You can use ellipses at the end of a sentence to show someone’s thoughts trailing off if it makes sense. My mistake was using them where a period would have sufficed. But, here’s one example of where I did it right in Ravenmarked:

“I can fight Braedan’s men every day if I must, but the Forbidden . . . .” He stared ahead, lost in thoughts.

The ellipses there show us that the character, Connor, is considering what he would have to do if he encountered these creatures he thinks are after him. We know from the sentence that he’s mulling over scenarios and chances, but he doesn’t feel the need to voice them (and scare the girl he’s escorting).

Did you notice four dots at the end of the sentence there? That’s the proper way to format ellipses at the end of a sentence. However, according to Grammar Girl, there is no such thing as a four-dot ellipses mark. Rather, the four dots indicate an ellipses plus a period. If I wanted the sentence to indicate a question, I’d use an ellipses mark plus a question mark.

So, despite my unholy love of the ellipses, I have used them (mostly) correctly. I just need to rein in the affection I have for the beastly things. But if you aren’t lured into overuse by the siren song of the ellipses mark, go ahead and try them out.

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8 Comments

  1. Paul Wiseall says:

    Cracking article as ever ARD!
    I did a degree in History and with some of the ridiculous quotations I had to use my essays were saturated with ellipses and since then they seem to permeate my writing, especially with putting pauses in speech.
    Always good to know I’m using them properly. 😀

    • Paul, I think as long as they’re reined in and used properly, they’re probably fine. But if I ever go back and re-edit Ravenmarked, they’ll be the first thing I search for. Of course, from a reader’s perspective, they probably aren’t even noticeable. Readers don’t notice the same stuff we writers notice. 🙂

  2. James Kelly says:

    Great article, but I’m afraid I must protest against ellipses in fiction. Whilst its use is vital for academic and journalistic work, I personally believe there are far more inventive ways of showing hesitation or trailing off in dialogue. As Amy herself states, the use of the ellipsis for this purpose is informal and, whilst characters and narrators can speak informally, the use of informal technique is a bit too close to sloppy technique for my own tastes.

    • Dave Marshall says:

      Hi James,
      I’m curious, in reference to something you’ve said above “I personally believe there are far more inventive ways of showing hesitation or trailing off in dialogue.”
      I’d be interested in some examples that you’ve considered (assuming it’s a belief with some foundations!), given that I’m an inveterate user of ellipses myself and I’m keen to understand some other options.
      Thanks,
      Dave

    • James, I suppose a lot of it comes down to taste and the author’s voice. I definitely think there are a lot of different ways to show pauses and hesitations, and none of them are particularly wrong. As long as none of them are overused, I don’t think any of them are inherently bad. Use or don’t use–it’s up to the author, I think. 🙂

      • James Kelly says:

        Absolutely! Whilst I don’t like ellipses myself, I’d be the first to get annoyed by an overuse of either of the examples I offered. Any crutch, as you say, is something to be avoided, not because the crutch itself is necessarily bad, but because over-reliance can weaken good writing!

  3. James Kelly says:

    Hi Dave,

    “Inventive” was not the best word to use in all honesty; “preferable” would have been better. But, regardless, to use Amy’s examples (why reinvent the wheel?), the alternatives that came to mind were:

    “Your mother’s clothes are lovely, but she was a slender woman, and I’m,” Alice said, offering an embarrassed smile. “Not.”

    And:

    “I can fight Braedan’s men every day if I must, but the Forbidden?” His words faltered and his gaze turned inward.

    The structure of the first isn’t fantastic but illustrates my point: he said/she saids interrupt dialogue all the time and insert a natural pause on their own. The second that it’s preferable, in my opinion, to state the character trailed off than to show it with an ellipsis.

    What do you think?

    James

    • James, I use those kinds of structures in a lot of places as well. I think they’re fine ways of showing hesitations and pauses. But I also think it’s fine to vary the types of hesitations and pauses we use, and ellipses are one way of doing that, I think they’re acceptable.

      But as I said–most of the places where I used them in Ravenmarked can probably be edited out. I *was* sloppy with them. It’s an error I don’t intend to make again. 🙂

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