The three little innocent-looking dots of an ellipsis (…) probably carry more power to annoy and confuse your readers than any other punctuation mark, writes Jacob Funnell.
Apostrophe mistakes look harmless in comparison. Nobody seriously reads ‘orange’s 45p’ and assumes that the orange must own a small amount of loose change. Ellipses, by contrast, can completely change the tone and meaning of what you write. And people who misuse them often don’t realise what they’re doing. Here are five ways not to use an ellipsis.
1. Using them … like a written ‘erm’ …
Trailing off in the middle of sentences in spoken conversation is common and almost unavoidable. (Unless you’re Oscar Wilde – WB Yeats said Wilde was the first person he’d met who spoke in perfect sentences.) But it’s rarely necessary to do this in writing.
In spoken conversation, you can rely on various cues to tell you whether the other person understands what you’re saying, and clarify as needed. But in writing, you need to be clear first time. Many writers use ellipses like written equivalents of ‘erm’ and ‘er’, but this can be confusing and frustrating for the reader.
To avoid inadvertently creating a ‘fill in the blanks’ puzzle, force yourself to finish your sentences. This might mean you have to do a bit more work before pressing send – quite possibly work you were trying to avoid. But just console yourself with the knowledge that you’re sending out a little more good karma into the world.
Compare these emails:
‘I haven’t had the full invitation to tender back yet … whom do I talk to? … no idea about the competitors … haven’t started the tender … not sure about our solution or details.’
‘I haven’t received the full invitation to tender document yet. And I only know the bare bones of the solution we’re going to propose. At this stage, I don’t even know whom to talk to about getting all the necessary information (about costs, materials, people) together. Do you have any suggestions?’
Concrete writing like this will naturally take longer than simply typing the first things that come to mind. But the extra time you spend focusing on what you’re actually saying, and why, will help clarify your message both for you and your reader, and ultimately increase your chances of getting the kind of response you want.
If you need to create a pause (a purposeful one, not an ‘erm’), consider using an en-dash instead of an ellipsis. It feels much more confident, especially when you need to link related parts of a sentence – like this.
2. Trailing off for no reason …
An ellipsis at the end of a sentence implies that the writer has trailed off. But why has the writer trailed off? Are they suggesting something? Does it represent a nudge or a wink?
Those three little dots suggest something is going on, but give the reader no clue about what it might be. This can make otherwise straightforward sentences confusing and (occasionally) somewhat unsettling.
Compare these sentences:
‘It’s not a problem for us to meet on Monday.’
‘It’s not a problem for us to meet on Monday …’
The trailing off in the second example could suggest the writer is having doubts (perhaps it is a problem). Or maybe it expresses confusion about why a meeting is even necessary. Or, if the writer is a chronic ellipsis-abuser, it may mean nothing at all. The reader must then judge what the meaning might be, or ask for clarification.
If you’re unsure about meeting on Monday, say so and explain why. For example: ‘It’s not a problem for us to meet on Monday, but I’m not sure if that will be helpful because John won’t be here and we need his input.’
3. Three is the magic number
Some style guides recommend writing an ellipsis as three full stops: …
Some prefer three full stops with spaces between them: . . .
And some tell you to use a special ellipsis character (PC shortcut: ALT+0133, Mac shortcut: COMMAND+semicolon): …
Whichever you use (we prefer three full stops without spaces, except on Twitter), all style guides agree that ellipses are three dots long. Not four, or two (and five is right out).
You may see what appears to be a four-dot ellipsis at the end of some sentences (eg ‘And then John fell asleep ….). This is in fact an ellipsis with a full stop at the end. You may also sometimes see three dots, a space and then a further dot (eg ‘And then John fell asleep … .). Again, style guides vary on this.
4. Omitting crucial parts of a quotation
You’ll often find that you need to condense quotes, and you can use an ellipsis to show that you’ve removed parts of the original. But be careful. To be completely transparent, you need to be sure that you’re not changing the meaning of what somebody has said.
Take this remark from US President Coolidge and the often-quoted condensed version:
‘The chief business of the American people is business’
‘The … business of the American people is business’
This changes the meaning of his sentence. The original version says that business is the most important concern, whereas in the second it sounds as if business is the only important thing.
5. Implying you have more to say when you haven’t
This is a very particular kind of trailing off, and possibly the most annoying of all. It often implies that what needs to be said is so obvious to the (knowledgeable) writer that it should be obvious to the reader, too. This can backfire badly – at worst, it can appear smug or condescending.
‘That’s a good plan, but there are important considerations …’
This kind of ellipsis is more suited to enigmatic status updates on social media (’OMG some people are so annoying …’), not that we advocate that sort of thing. For business it’s better to spell things out.
Ask yourself why you’re tempted to use an ellipsis, get the answer straight in your head, then politely say that instead: ‘That’s a good plan, but I’m worried about how expensive it is. We’re also working on so many other projects that I’m not sure we’ll have the time to spare’.
Use with caution …
Like many of the best things in life, ellipses are fine when used well and in moderation, but troublesome when used recklessly. (OK, OK, we’re sounding like your dad now.) So keep using them, if you wish, but do so consciously. And if you catch yourself dot-dot-dotting to cop out of saying what you actually mean, take a moment’s pause. What is likely to be the most positive approach in the long run? At work, usually, clarity is king.