Ellipsis Grammar for Normal People

(Screw the Editors!)

Her: “Does this dress make me look fat?” You: “Well…no!” This is ellipsis grammar at work.

What if instead, you had said, “Well, no!” Same two words; the only difference is the punctuation in between them. But that makes all the difference.

Difference Between Ellipsis and Comma

Both the ellipsis and the comma indicate a pause in between the words. What’s different is the nature and length of those pauses. “Well, no!” indicates a pretty straightforward response. The guy is telling his woman in a straightforward fashion that she is totally sexy. “Well…no!” on the other hand, indicates a longer pause after “Well.” It indicates a trailing off, a thought, a sense of doubt. When we read “Well…no!” we get the feeling that this guy had to think about it. Did he honestly think about it and come to the conclusion that his woman is, in fact, not fat? Or did he look at her and realize she’s a bit of a chubster, but decide to spare her feelings anyway?

You can’t say for sure, but my guess is on the latter. Hey, some guys like girls with a little meat on their bones. I’m serious! There’s nothing wrong with that!

Misused Ellipses

Ellipses are often misused. As I said, they often indicate a pause or a trailing off; this creates a more natural-feeling, conversational prose. Ellipses can create a sense of doubt, or a sense of subtext; for instance, “I don’t hate you…” has a very different connotation than, “I don’t hate you!” The latter is emphatic and straightforward. The former trails off, suggesting that the speaker ended this sentence not with a sense of finality, but one of uncertainty.

The Chicago Manual of Style states: “Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.”

It’s a subtle distinction, and it can really give your writing a little something extra.

Ellipses vs Em Dash

Another frequent mistake is confusing the em dash—these things—with the ellipsis. Em dashes indicate an interruption, a quick changing of the subject, or to point out an exception. Note that em dashes are not the same as hyphens (the button on your keyboard that comes after “0”). Em dashes are bigger (they’re as wide as the letter M; that’s where the name comes from), but you can approximate an em dash by using two hyphens in a row. Do not put a space between the words and the em dash.

Official Use

The most official use of ellipses is to indicate an omission. This is particularly relevant when you’re quoting somebody and you don’t want to use the whole quote; the ellipses mean that you’re skipping some of the person’s words. Just make sure that you don’t change the person’s meaning or take their words out of context!

Remember: it’s three dots, in a row, usually with a space between them—but make sure the dots don’t spill over from one line to the next.

More Tips

(If you're interested in learning more grammar tips, check out contractions grammar and themselves grammar.)

And that’s it! You know all about ellipsis grammar. Now you can go out there and impress your friends. Maybe they’ll even throw you a party! Right?