The Pregnant Pause
by Cherie Tucker
Could we talk a minute about the ellipsis marks, those three little
dots that people think mean a number of things they actually don’t
mean? First of all, here is how they are to be typed: three
spaced periods. Only three. Not seven. Only three. With a
space between each of them. Each. Of. Them.
Next, here is how they are to be used. If you are taking something
out of a quotation, you indicate that you have done so by the use of
those three spaced periods. If they come at the end of a sentence,
then you add a period as you would with the end of any other
sentence. Yes, that will make four, but you have only two
punctuation marks, three spaced periods to indicate that you have
mucked about with someone’s quoted material, and a single period to
show the reader that the sentence is now ended. (Yes, there is a
space before the final period.)
If you are writing a script, you may use ellipses to indicate that
you wish the actor to trail off. You may also use that in dialogue
in prose to indicate that the speaker trailed off.
Every other use, whatever your intention, merely annoys the reader.
It doesn’t mean Wait for it, here comes the punch line. It doesn’t
mean that you’re thinking. It’s not, as in speech, a verbalized
pause. It is an interruption in the stream of your writing that
stops the reader. If you want to stop the reader for whatever
reason, you have punctuation marks for that. If you want to say
Here’s the punch line, use a colon. If you want to pause the
thought in a sentence, but you don’t want the reader to flush
because the next part follows from the first, use a semicolon. If
you need to interrupt to whisper something, use parentheses; if you
wish to shout your interruption, use the dash.
However . . . the use of three dots . . . whatever you think they
might be doing . . . tantalizing the reader while he waits for your
Aha . . . or whatever . . . is annoying. Please stop . . .
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to
professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.
She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the
University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits