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 as well.

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