The Grammarphobia Blog

A dotty question

Q: I use a lot of dots like these ……….. in my e-mail. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness thing …….. a conversational way of expressing myself. What’s the correct way to use them?

A: The dots you’re talking about are called ellipsis points or ellipses. They usually come in threes, like so … and they’re supposed to signal that the writer has deliberately omitted something. When the omission comes at the end of the sentence, there’s a period added, so there are then a total of four dots. But in the middle of a sentence there should be only three.

You frequently see ellipsis points in quotations, since the writer often doesn’t want to quote everything the speaker said: Mr. Smith said, “I’m happy to be here … and to see all my old friends.” That indicates the quote was actually longer but the writer is omitting some of it. Or maybe there was an obscenity the writer doesn’t want to repeat: “Get your … feet off the table!”

Another use of ellipsis points is to indicate a trailing off at the end of a sentence, often with the final period omitted, like this: I saw the train hurtling toward the bridge, then …

As for the “stream of consciousness” stuff, some people use these dots in their e-mails to string together a bunch of disorganized ideas. Not a good use of ellipsis points!