by Paige Jackson
Ellipses —those little dots in the middle of a sentence—can be mystifying. Their purpose is to let the reader know that some part of a quotation has been left out.
Sometimes, text is omitted from the middle of a sentence. The missing text is indicated with three ellipses:
Original: He came home, with dogs and parakeet in tow, just in time for supper.
With text omitted: He came home . . . just in time for supper.
Sometimes, the missing text occurs within two or more sentences. In that case, four dots are used—a period and three ellipses—to signal that the gap in text includes the end of one sentence and the beginning of another:
Original: He arrived just in time for dinner. Unbeknownst to the rest of the family, he had brought his roommates along.
With text omitted: He arrived just in time for dinner. . . . he had brought his roommates along.
Note that since the first dot is a period, there should be no space between the last word of the first sentence and the first dot. Some prefer to capitalize the first letter after the ellipses if what follows is an independent clause. So the example above would read as follows:
He arrived just in time for dinner. . . . He had brought his roommates along.
And what about punctuation other than a period? Other forms of punctuation can be included when doing so helps the reader understand the sentence. Whether it goes before or after the ellipses depends on whether it comes before or after the omitted text in the original quotation.
Here’s an example where a semicolon is kept:
Original: He arrived just in time for a sumptuous dinner of broccoli and peanuts; his roommates didn’t find the meal quite so appealing.
With text omitted and semicolon retained: He arrived just in time for a sumptuous dinner; . . . his roommates didn’t find the meal quite so appealing.
If instead, we insert ellipses for the missing text and don’t retain the punctuation, we would be left with two independent clauses but no conjunction or punctuation to guide the reader.
Here’s an example where a comma is retained—this time after the ellipses:
Original: He arrived in time to help out with dinner, but his sister had already assembled the casserole.
With text omitted and comma retained: He arrived in time . . . , but his sister had already assembled the casserole.
Sometimes, punctuation is retained so that the author’s meaning isn’t compromised:
Original: She found a cockroach in the stew!—much to her horror and hardly the impression she wanted to leave of her culinary skills.
With text omitted and exclamation point and em-dash retained: She found a cockroach in the stew!—hardly the impression she wanted to leave of her culinary skills.
It’s usually clear on first reading whether retaining the punctuation makes sense.
Typically, ellipses are used only within a quotation, not at the beginning or at the end of a quotation. A rare exception would be an instance where the sentence could otherwise be misinterpreted.
Finally, in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual a new rule was introduced that calls for using ellipses in references with more than seven authors. For more on this, see Chelsea’s post on Formatting References With More Than Seven Authors.
Ellipses are discussed in section 6.08 of the Publication Manual. For a more elaborate discussion, see sections 13.48–13.56 in The Chicago Manual of Style.