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What is an Ellipsis?

Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Updated May 17, 2024
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Writers have many tools at their disposal to convey different ideas in their writing, and not all of these tools come in the form of words. Punctuation can often convey as much meaning as words, and they can indicate ideas words sometimes can't--such as silence, pauses, and emotional cues such as excitement. One such form of punctuation is the ellipsis, which is meant to indicate either omitted text, a pause within a sentence, or an idea trailing off into silence.

An ellipsis is typically indicated by a series of three periods (...) and can occur anywhere in a sentence, depending on the intended meaning. An ellipsis does not always come in the form of three dots. It may also be indicated by an M-dash (--) or three asterisks (***), but the most common form is the three periods (...). This technique has led to the ellipsis's colloquial name, the "dot dot dot."

Because an ellipsis does not necessarily mean the same thing in all instances of its appearance, the reader must be responsible for deciphering the meaning of its presence. When placed in a sentence, an ellipsis may indicate to the reader that a word or words has been omitted, but it may also mean that a silence or pause has been indicated. The real meaning is largely up to the reader to decide. Here is an example:

John flew to...Mexico.

The ellipsis in this sentence may indicate that the specific location in Mexico has been omitted,

John flew to Oaxaca, Mexico.

Or, it may indicate that the speaker of the sentence has paused before mentioning Mexico, perhaps to think about where John went, or perhaps for some other intention, such as hiding John's specific location within Mexico. In this case, the reader is not given enough contextual information to make the determination, but in most cases, the reader will have gleaned enough information from previous sentences and paragraphs to decipher what the writer has intended by using an ellipsis.

The ellipsis is not limited to writing in English, either. When making long lists of numbers, mathematicians and students may use the ellipsis to indicate a continuation of the list to a certain point. For example, when counting by tens to 100, one might write the following:

10, 20, 30, ...100.

This indicates the person counting should continue counting by ten past thirty all the way to one hundred, but the ellipsis saves space on the page by cutting out what should be obvious to the astute reader.

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Discussion Comments

By kylee07drg — On Jan 16, 2012

I like to use ellipses when I am keeping track of my finances by using the draft box in my phone. I have a haphazard way of doing things, so I don't use a spreadsheet or a transaction register right away like a regular person.

I open up a window to write a text message, and if I have multiple transactions to record in one day, I just put ellipses between the amounts. I then close out the message, which is automatically saved to my drafts.

When I eventually get ready to write the amounts down in my actual transaction register, I pull up the draft and read the amounts. The ellipses help me clearly separate my transactions, and my chaotic mind responds well to this method.

By StarJo — On Jan 15, 2012

I received an email from my boyfriend that was just full of ellipses. I could imagine him pausing and struggling with his words as vividly as if he were speaking to me with his voice.

He used the email to break up with me. He could not seem to find the exact words to express his reasons for wanting to leave me, and the ellipses indicated his struggle to define what he was feeling.

In a way, I'm glad he didn't do it in person. However, reading all those ellipses felt pretty awkward. I don't know why he didn't go back and rewrite it once he found the words he wanted to use.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 14, 2012

@Oceana – I know what you are talking about. One of my favorite authors does the same thing.

She writes mystery novels, and each chapter ends in an inconclusive way. So, she alludes to the next one by ending the final sentence with an ellipsis.

This both intrigues and irritates me. I can't stop reading after one chapter, because the ellipsis makes me want to know what happens next really badly. So, I have to read the entire book at one sitting!

It is a smart thing to do. It decrease the likelihood that anyone will put down her books without finishing them.

By Oceana — On Jan 14, 2012

I like to use ellipses when writing in my journal. Sometimes, I write my thought patterns down until I have exhausted hope of finding a solution to an issue. When this happens, I just end the last sentence with an ellipsis.

Also, I like for my journal to read like a continuum. I don't like to end entries abruptly, and I like to know where I last trailed off into silence. So, at the end of each entry, I use an ellipsis.

I like doing this instead of writing “to be continued,” because it saves space, and it also provides a certain amount of mystery. Though I will likely be the only one who ever reads it, I like the feeling that the ellipsis gives me when I read back over my old musings.

By anon31702 — On May 10, 2009

The plural form of Ellipsis is Ellipses.

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