The ellipsis – how to use it in non-fiction

The ellipsis

You wouldn’t think three innocuous little dots would cause too many problems, but it’s clear from some of the texts I work on that some clients find that using the ellipsis properly and consistently can be a headache. Does it need a space before and after it? Should there be a space after the first and second dots? Should the ellipsis be in square brackets? Is it even needed at all? (And, yes, I know the picture above isn’t of an ellipsis, but there’s a bit of a reference there, and I’m getting into the Christmas spirit, so … just humour me, please.)

I’ll focus in this post on using the ellipsis (also called ellipsis points) in non-fiction writing such as journal articles, books, reports, and dissertations and theses. It’s impossible to cover all aspects of its use here, but my aim is to cover some problem areas that I come across all the time when I’m proofreading and copy-editing.

Definition of ellipsis

Oxford Dictionaries online defines an ellipsis as follows:

1. The omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues

1.1 A set of dots (…) indicating an ellipsis

The main use for the ellipsis in the non-fiction work that I proofread and copy-edit is to indicate that words have been omitted from a quotation, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on below.

How do you type an ellipsis?

It’s important that the full stops that make up the ellipsis don’t get separated – you don’t want two dots appearing at the end of one line and then one dot at the start of the next. There are two ways of avoiding this.

The first is to type the following: a space, a full stop, a non-breaking space, a full stop, a non-breaking space, a full stop, and finally a normal space. A keyboard shortcut for a non-breaking space is Ctrl+Shift+Space Bar. Another thing to consider is that your preferred style might be to allow a new line to start after the ellipsis but not before it, in which case you’ll also need to insert a non-breaking space before the first full stop.

The second way to avoid having a line break in the middle of an ellipsis is to use the ellipsis character, which can be found via the Insert tab (go to the Symbol option and click More Symbols and then Special Characters, or click on More Symbols and then enter Unicode 2026) or can be inserted using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Alt+. (just to clarify, that last bit means ‘plus a full stop’). This character has no spaces between the dots, so if you have a publisher, it’s best to check whether they want you to use the ellipsis character.

When do you use an ellipsis?

An ellipsis is used to indicate that you have omitted a word or words, a sentence, or even a paragraph from words that you have quoted. It’s standard in non-fiction texts to have a space before and after the ellipsis when you’re showing an omission that is somewhere other than the beginning or end of a quotation (but always check any style guide you’re following), for example

Smith, in her critique on the ellipsis from 1972, writes, ‘Those wretched little dots … are the cause of many a sleepless night for the conscientious author.’

But what if you want to omit at least one sentence? This is where the use of a full stop followed by an ellipsis comes in. The standard British English style guide that lots of professional editors use, New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, says that omission of one or more sentences can be shown in the following way:

Smith concludes, ‘I am determined to use the ellipsis correctly. … I’m sure it’s not as difficult as it sounds.’

New Hart’s Rules suggests that when using four points like this, the words before and after them should function as complete sentences.

Do you need an ellipsis at the start and/or end of a quotation?

I’m talking here about when you are only quoting part of a sentence so the quotation starts with a lower-case letter. Both New Hart’s Rules and The Chicago Manual of Style (a standard style guide used for US English) say that it’s not necessary to have an ellipsis at the start or the end of such a quotation. However, if you plan to publish your work, it’s best to check what your publisher’s preferred style is in this respect (as it is for all style issues if the style guide is silent about a particular aspect). If you’re a student and your university doesn’t provide a style guide, it’s likely that your university will simply want your style to be consistent, but it’s best to check with your supervisor if in doubt. I proofread one thesis this year that had lots of quotations from interviewees in it and the student had been told that the preferred style was to have an ellipsis at the start and end of the interviewees’ words where only part of a sentence was being quoted.

Do you need square brackets round an ellipsis?

The short answer is no, unless the style guide you’re following requires them or the original quote itself contains an ellipsis. The Modern Humanities Research Association style guide, for example, requires them (https://www.mhra.org.uk/style/5.7). If the original quote includes an ellipsis, you’d put square brackets round the ellipsis that you as the author have inserted. This is so that it’s immediately clear which of the two ellipses appears in the original quotation. Here’s an example:

Smith’s final paragraph ends with the following description: ‘The discussion about whether a space was needed before the ellipsis went on all afternoon … and even continued the next morning. It was […] a very heated debate.’

This post has covered some basic points about how to use the ellipsis, with particular reference to its use in quotations. I hope you’ve found it helpful.

 

If you have a text that needs copy-editing or proofreading, just send me your text by email via bev.sykes@superscriptproofreading.co.uk and I’ll take a look and give you a quote

 

References

The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), 16th edition. The University of Chicago Press, pp. 637–641 (sections 13.48 to 13.56 inclusive).

New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (2014), 2nd edition, edited by Anne Waddingham. Oxford University Press, pp. 81 and 82 (section 4.7), p. 167 (section 9.3.3).

Oxford Dictionaries online https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ellipsis