Ellipses: When to Use Ellipses in Writing (Examples)

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 24, 2023

If you've been wondering what ellipses are and when to use them in your writing, you've come to the right place because that's precisely what this article will cover and more.

In short:

  • Ellipses are a form of punctuation used to show omitted words in quotations, a thought trailing off, to add suspense, or to suggest there's more.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Ellipses?

First of all, we should talk about what exactly ellipses are. They're a form of punctuation consisting of three dots in a row. You can use them for many different purposes, but the most common one in formal settings is to show an omission for a quote, and in casual settings, it adds a little suspense.

  • Ellipses is actually the plural noun for ellipsis. Three dots count as one ellipsis. If you use the word 'ellipses' with an 'e,' you're inferring there are several sets of three dots.

It's pronounced the same, whether singular or plural, since the two words are homophones.

You pronounce them like this:

[ ih-lip-sis ]

/ ɪˈlɪp sɪs /

You might also have heard it referred to as 'dot dot dot.' That's the more casual name for it.

How To Format Ellipses

Recommendations on how to format ellipses vary depending on the style guide. For example, MLA and Chicago Manual of Style prefer for you to use spaces between each dot, as well as at the beginning and end of the ellipsis:

[ . . . ]

On the other hand, AP Style Guide prefers you not to use spaces between the dots. They do agree about using space on either side of the ellipsis, though:

[ ... ]

Some style guides will tell you not to use spaces before and after, and some will ask you to use a space after but not before.

Furthermore, you'll sometimes see ellipses enclosed within brackets (most often in formal writing and journalism), and other times not.



So how will you decide how to format your ellipses? I recommend speaking to the editing team at your company to find out which style guide they follow. Alternatively, if they don't have one or you're writing for yourself, you're free to pick whichever one you prefer. Just remember to stay consistent: pick one and stick to it.

When to Use Ellipses

Now it's time to get to the juicy bit: when do you use ellipses? We will go over four significant instances when ellipses are used today.

Those are:

  • To show omitted words
  • To pause for dramatic effect
  • To leave a sentence unfinished
  • Modern uses of ellipses

Let's look into these ones by one.

To Show Omitted Words

To show omitted words in a direct quote is one of the most common ways you'll see ellipses being used. Some even say it's the only acceptable way to use ellipses in formal writing.

So how do you do it?

Imagine you wanted to quote something somebody had said, but it was long, and the middle bit wasn't relevant to your point. Then you'd be able to leave out the bit that isn't relevant and replace it with ellipses instead. The idea is that this way, the reader will know you've left out part of the quote.

Here's an example of what that might look like:

As per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "Punctuation used in the original that falls on either side [ ... ] may be retained if it helps clarify the sentence structure."

This quote's whole sentence is, "Punctuation used in the original that falls on either side of the ellipsis points is often omitted, but it may be retained if it helps clarify the sentence structure." Still, it's a rather long sentence, and it wasn't essential to show it in its entirety, so I replaced the middle bit with an ellipsis placed within brackets.

  • Note that when doing this, you'll want to try to keep the grammaticality of the sentence intact when you split it this way. The idea is when the reader reads the sentence, it still makes sense, and they can grasp the meaning intended.

Here are some more examples:

"Great moments are born from great opportunity, and that's what you have here tonight, boys. [...] Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world."

—Herb Brooks

"The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. [...] But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done."

—Rocky Balboa

"I've found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. [...] There is no doubt about it. [...] Give everything you've got. And when you fall throughout life, fall forward."

—Denzel Washington

Pause for Dramatic Effect

This use of ellipses is a little less formal and most commonly found in fiction texts and casual forms of communication, like email or text.

  • If you want to mark a pause in a sentence, you can use ellipses.

So what's the difference between a comma and an ellipsis or an em dash and an ellipsis? Well, for starters, ellipses mark a longer pause than a comma. But it's a softer pause than a dash, which can be slightly abrupt. But mainly, the break marked by an ellipsis helps create a dramatic effect or build suspense.

Here are some examples:

I wandered into the kitchen and you'll never guess what I saw... my cat pooping on the floor! 

She's given the project the go ahead, but... she's picked another team to do the job.

I'm really into you...

Leave a Sentence Unfinished

Nowadays, songs have neat, well-thought-out, and pretty dramatic endings. But some of you might remember the days when songs used to end by gradually decreasing in volume.

That's the equivalent of using an ellipsis to trail off into silence.

  • You can use them for this purpose if you aren't sure what you want to say next, are avoiding telling a difficult truth, or are leaving space for the other person to say something. 

Here are some sentences that illustrate this use of ellipses:

Yes, Sally was at the reunion last night. She seemed very...

I'm not sure this opportunity is right for you...

So are you ready to go or... ?

Modern Uses of Ellipses

I wanted to include a separate section to talk about modern uses of ellipses because social media and technological advances have greatly influenced how we use ellipses in the same way they've impacted many other aspects of language. This can be confusing because you might see certain words or punctuation used in ways that aren't accounted for in grammar texts.

  • But it's also positive because it gives you the freedom to experiment and be creative in your writing. It means that the rules can be broken.

Here are some of the ways you might see ellipses being used on social media these days:

  • To show we are pausing to think
    I think I'll have... one scoop of vanilla and one chocolate.
  • To make a suggestion
    We could go to the cinema...
  • To indicate the other person is typing
    . . .
  • To communicate annoyance or impatience
    Are you ready or...

These are just a few. I'm sure you'll notice many more ways people are using ellipses if you pay attention. These ways of using ellipses probably don't follow proper grammar rules, but as long as you know that and can differentiate the use of ellipses in casual settings and their use in formal settings, you're safe. So have fun!

  • One final piece of advice - and this applies to all uses of ellipses - is don't overuse them. They're a great tool, but they'll encumber your text and lose their effect if you use them all the time. 

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on the use of ellipses. I hope you found it helpful.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Ellipses are punctuation marks made up of three dots.
  • You can use them to show omitted words, trail off for dramatic effect, or leave a sentence unfinished.
  • Social media and text messaging use ellipses in entirely new ways.
  • Get creative and have fun!

If you enjoyed this article, you'd love our Grammar Book, a free online database of grammar articles just like this one. Check it out!

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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