Ellipsis . . .

During last week’s meeting at the Liverpool Speculative Fiction writers’ group we discussed the ellipsis ‘. . .’ and whether there should be spacing before or after, and whether the word following the ellipsis should be capitalised or not. Here are my findings.

First of all, Wikipedia is pretty useless on the subject. And ellipses are noticeably absent from William Shunn’s formatting guidelines which I often refer to.

I looked in various textbooks:

Self-Editing (page 94) says:

“Ellipses are used, in fiction at least, to show a trailing off . . .” “. . . or to show that there are gaps in the dialogue (as when you’re giving one side of a telephone conversation).”

Eats Shoots & Leaves offers pretty much the same advice (page 166):

“1. To indicate words missing . . . from a quoted passage.”

“2. To trail off in an intriguing manner . . .”

The Creative Writing Coursebook repeats pretty much what is stated above, adding (page 364):

“Publishers hate to see a lot of ellipses on a page, so use them sparingly. It is best to type a space plus a full stop, three times.”

So I grabbed a favourite book of mine, Never Let Me Go, to look for examples. On page 26 there is:

‘Oh . . .’ Tommy gazed past me to the pond, pretending too this was a topic he’d forgotten all about.

This is a clear example of ‘trailing off’. Comparing with other full stops on the page I can see there is an obvious space before the ellipsis and I’m petty sure there are spaces between each of the full stops that make up the ellipsis itself. Interesting that the Wikipedia page mentioned above quotes Robert Bringhurst as saying:

“a full space between each dot is ‘another Victorian eccentricity'”

Never Let Me Go, page 136:

‘The point is, they claim they saw this . . . person. Working there in this open-plan office.’

This is a example of using an ellipsis to insert a pause mid-sentence. The word ‘person’ is not capitalised because it’s part of the same sentence. There are what look like spaces before and after the ellipsis, and again what look like spaces in between each of the three full stops.

Never Let Me Go, page 176:

‘If you tell her your theory,’ I said, ‘and she buys it . . . Well, she’s going to be furious.’

So now we have an example where a pause has been inserted mid-dialogue, but because the speaker follows this pause with a new sentence the word ‘Well’ is capitalised. The structure of the ellipsis is the same as when used mid-sentence, with a space before and after. The only difference is the capitalisation of the following word.

Interesting to note that most books say to use an ’em-dash’ ‘—’ at the end of a sentence, especially with dialogue, to indicate one speaker cutting across another.

For example, Self-Editing (page 93):

‘Now, look you two—’ Dudley said.

‘You stay out of this,’ Tyrone said.

But Ishiguro seems to use an ellipsis in Never Let Me Go (page 178):

‘You know,’ Tommy said, ‘when Ruth said what she did earlier on, and I saw how upset you looked . . .’

‘Leave it Tommy.’

Arguably this could be trailing off, but Ishiguro uses this technique enough times to make me think he is using it to indicate interruption.


I think I’m probably using ellipses about 60% right, 40% wrong at the moment. I need to add a space before the ellipsis whether it’s mid-sentence or trailing. When used in the middle of a paragraph, the following word can either be capitalised or not to suit the sentence structure, but I should add a space after the ellipsis, before the following word, either way.

I will keep an eye on the number of times I use ellipsis per page to make sure I don’t over-egg it.

I’m not sure whether I will insert spaces in between each full stop. I probably will do, because it looks quite nice . . .



  1. thebloggerssoliloquy says:

    Thanks again for these writing tips. The ellipsis looks so simple that it’s hard for me to believe that I was ever doing it wrong, until now . . .

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