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Ellipsis: Meaning, Correct Use, and Losing Your Readers

Tessa Schlesinger has been a writer since birth. She was published early, is opinionated, and, in her 7th decade, still continues to write.

Ellipsis User Guide

The number of people who use an ellipsis (those three little dots) after each sentence is growing. For the most part, it's incorrectly used. It means that the writer has left out some words and the reader is expected to fill in those words.

Why Do People Use Ellipsis Incorrectly?

I suspect the writer is trying to impart emotion or a sense of mystery to the reader. The only problem with that is that ellipsis is not intended to impart emotion or mystery.

An ellipsis says that the reader will be familiar with the missing information so the writer doesn’t have to write it because it’s too longwinded. It’s a form of politeness not to waste the reader’s time.

The ‘sentence’ below is typical of much on the internet today.

“I stood there….the sun was shining…I gave John the key…the snow came suddenly…we rushed into the house…”

Like many other readers, this replacement of conventional punctuation with ellipsis irritates me to the point where I just want to block the abuser! I kid you not. It’s annoying and frustrating.

The ellipsis indicates that something has been left out. If you know what it is, no problem. If you don't, it's frustrating. So take a guess! That's me on my first visit to ?

The ellipsis indicates that something has been left out. If you know what it is, no problem. If you don't, it's frustrating. So take a guess! That's me on my first visit to ?

Why Wrong Use of Ellipsis Slows Down Comprehension and Reading Speed

We only read something once in our lives. After that, we sight-read. That’s because we remember what the word looked like and we don’t have to work out what it says after we’ve become familiar with it.

It stands to reason that as we become quicker and quicker to recognize the words, we reader faster and faster. I, for instance, can comfortably read 500 pages an hour. There are people out there that read 600 pages an hour. You can google that.

Studies have shown that the degree of comprehension is directly related to the speed with which one reads. The faster that one reads, the easier it is to understand what is being said. The converse is true: the slower one reads, the more difficult it is to comprehend meaning.

It’s a case of practice makes perfect.

However, what also makes it easier to read and comprehend is an understanding of grammar. We know what the rules are. So if we see a comma, we know that there is a slight pause. If we see an exclamation mark, we know that something surprising and unexpected has happened. If we see an ellipsis, we know that words have been omitted and that we are supposed to know what those words are. When we do, we can continue to read just as speedily as we did previously. If we don’t know which words were left out, it slows our reading speed. When we see more and more ellipsis with no idea of what we were supposed to understand, we feel frustrated and angry.

Trust me on that.

If you tell me that you don’t get frustrated and angry, etc. I’m willing to bet you’re not a writer, and you’re definitely not a reader who reads more than 40 or 50 books a year. In other words, you read slowly, and you have no idea what an ellipsis is, so you don’t know that it signals that some words have been omitted.

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Read More From Owlcation

Novelists Use Ellipsis - Occasionally!

Authors seldom use ellipses. The reason is that the entire point of writing a book is to explain to the reader what is happening. If the writer keeps inserting three dots so that the reader has to work out what has been left out, then the reader will become very frustrated. In addition, when a novelist does use an ellipsis, then it's because s/he has previously given the information so the reader gets what the writer is saying.

So, yes, you will lose your reader. Well, you will lose your educated reader. I’m not the only one who is highly irritated at this irrational and over-frequent use of the ellipsis.

Blogger, Alex Rodriguez says, “Every sentence ends unnecessarily with an ellipsis. Look at that one where he ended with both a question mark and an ellipsis! That’s just ridiculous. This guy just might have an intelligent point to make, but I’ll never know, because no flipping way am I reading any farther in this post.”

An article entitled How to misuse your ellipses and infuriate your readers confirms that the use of ellipsis does cost you readers. It also costs you credibility.

To quote “If you don’t want to come off like a passive-aggressive prick, don’t use ellipses to end your sentences. They are not substitutes for periods.”

Yet another blogger states, “I have noticed a growing trend in a major grammatical error that is, quite frankly, driving me crazy! The misuse/abuse of the ellipsis...”

In Writing Ellipsis (plural, ellipses) is a technique in grammar, also called elliptical construction, that is used to avoid unnecessary repetition or to avoid stating information that the reader already knows.

In Writing Ellipsis (plural, ellipses) is a technique in grammar, also called elliptical construction, that is used to avoid unnecessary repetition or to avoid stating information that the reader already knows.

It's Bad Writing

An online writing school says, “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.”

Please believe me, if you want people to take you seriously, it’s best to give the ellipsis a miss!

A business writing publications says, “Yesterday I led a business writing class for a group of sales managers and other sales professionals near Portland, Oregon. As in other classes, these questions came up: "What about dot dot dot? When should I use that?" The answer: Never.”

Knowing How to Say What You Want to Say

Developing the skill to say what you want to say in such a way that the reader comprehends it immediately is part of good writing. Substituting a ellipsis because you don’t know how to do that doesn’t make you a good writer, and it will certainly cost you readers.

© 2016 Tessa Schlesinger


Tessa Schlesinger (author) on February 22, 2018:

Paula, thank you most kindly. So much for the editors who are supposed to pick up these things! They happen when I copy and paste, go back and rewrite, etc., and then, carelessly, on my part, I don't fix up the other parts of the sentence. Thank you so much for making my piece more correct. :)

Suzie from Carson City on February 22, 2018:

Ms. Schlesinger, any conscientious writer can appreciate the type of education you have shared here with your readers/fellow writers. I, for one, am always grateful to learn anything and everything about our beautiful English language, how to use it, when and why. This particular information is quite helpful and I'd venture to say it's a revelation to many.

Thank you for this article. Let me return the favor by pointing out three slight errors you may want to correct:

In your sentence beginning, "I, for instance can,. . . I'm sure you meant to write, "comfortably" rather than "comfortable."

Your sentence beginning with, "However, what also makes it should read "an" understanding rather than "a."

In your sentence beginning, "So, yes, you will.....(should be "lose") your reader, not "use."

There may be more but these are 3 that I caught and knew you would want to correct.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on February 20, 2018:

Tessa, as a professional editor of 33 years in the United States, I can tell you with confidence that unless the ellipsis is used to legitimately leave words out, it is not a true ellipsis. Some writers use three dots for a dramatic pause and some use three dots because they don't know what they are doing. Kind of like people who put apostrophes in given names.

The ellipsis was invented to be used when using long quotes in texts, for instance research papers. If the writer is quoting Abraham Lincoln and uses the ellipsis:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth...the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The writer is using it correctly. There are several reasons for using the ellipsis in this instance. Those include: lack of space (limited column inches), the rest of the quotation may be irrelevant, or keeping within the word quotation allowance under U.S. copyright laws. I can't speak for copyright laws in other countries.

You are correct that people are using the three dots incorrectly. Monkey see, monkey do. So until a person educates himself or herself on proper usage, it is better to avoid them.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on September 06, 2017:

Thanks for this. I think I have misused the ellipsis. I'm going to check my hubs.

Waltraud Grossmann from Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada on March 05, 2017:

I must admit Tessa I didn't know what these 3 dots were called. I haven't seen them in the books I have read as I only read well written books. Excellent article in explaining the use and over use of the ellipsis.

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