Dot. Dot. Dot.

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Those dots are everywhere these days. The ubiquitous ellipsis — also casually known as dot-dot-dot. I have found myself sticking them into email, in text messages, even in my so-called professional writing. I admit it, I’ve been a little slapdash with my ellipsis use lately. So … I thought I’d have another look at it to see just how far I have strayed from typographic-correctness.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I haven’t gone very far wrong — and there is a pretty darn good explanation for the upswing in the everyday use of it. I’ll get to that after I give you the down-low on that cute, ever-so-useful, recently over-used, dot-dot-dot.

What is an ellipsis?

The ellipsis is made up of three equally spaced periods. Together they make up a single ellipsis. Plural for this punctuation is ‘ellipses’ (rhymes with ‘gypsies’).

An ellipsis has feeling — it is not just a neutral punctuation mark. It conveys feeling, tone … even cadence.

What is its correct appearance?

The periods are supposed to be spaced out further than three periods
in a row ( ... ), but less than three periods with spaces between them ( . . . ). This is annoying because that means to get the correct ellipsis you need to use a key command — word processors often will automatically correct it (although many argue that the auto-spacing is still not correct).

The dots all need to appear together, so don’t let one of the periods get separated from the other two in a line break. They need spaces on either side except when placed beside a period or question mark. (Here they are with a question mark …? Here they are in a sentence … like this.)

How do I get the real thing? (key commands)

Most fonts have a built-in ellipsis character that you can get with a key command. Typographers note that even these usually need adjusting.

Mac OS ellipsis: OPTION + semicolon
Windows ellipsis: ALT + 0133
HTML ellipsis: &hellip

In email you are better off using three periods to avoid it translating into some other unpredictable, meaningless character.

What is its correct purpose?

You can use an ellipsis in writing:

  1. When you want to leave something out of a quotation in order to tidy up the point (but not mislead or change the meaning of the point).
  2. When you want to indicate a pause in the conversation, time passing, or something left unsaid like when a thought trails off … what was I saying? It is increasingly used online to indicate to ‘read more … ’ by making it a link.

The first use is pretty straightforward. The second use is the most interesting, because this is how it keeps popping up when we use our new communication technology.

An ellipsis has feeling — it is not just a neutral punctuation mark. It conveys feeling, tone . . . even cadence. An ellipsis tends to convey the impression of uncertainty, casual conversation or even fragmented thinking. A pause here and there can mean the writer is thinking, hesitating, mulling over, or having second thoughts. Trailing off can mean the writer is unsure, tentative, unsteady, or nervous. The impression that time is passing can mean the writer is withholding, thinking, pausing for dramatic effect or, well, that time is passing.

Both of these forms of communication benefit from the infusion of all those dots so we can approximate a warm, natural conversation.

Why the upswing in ellipsis use?

Let’s face it, email is a cold communication medium (who hasn’t sent a message that was misconstrued as colder than we intended?). And texting is a minimalist communication form (although I’d argue that the1400 text messages my daughter sent last month is not very minimalist). Both of these forms of communication benefit from the infusion of all those dots so we can approximate a warm, natural conversation. The ellipsis helps simulate a conversational tone through our cold little inanimate objects — and I think THIS is why it is popping up so much!

Caution: over-use is cheesy.

I’ll let Grammar Girl have the last word: “use ellipses … if you must, but use them sparingly, and know that although it's grammatically correct, it's considered by some to be annoying and cheap.” Good advice for me as I am trying to avoid being annoying and cheap. Grammar Girl is a great source for correct use of language and punctuation.