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I’m fairly certain that no mark of punctuation has caused me as much editorial torture as ellipsis points, aka an ellipsis. The mark was once primarily used to indicate that something had been left out of quoted material. As its popularity increases, the little ellipsis dots have escaped the confines of quotation marks and italics and are having a new life in all sorts of writing today. This greater usage has inevitably lead to changes, and all these changes can cause some confusion.

The three dots—points or periods or full stops, and sometimes there are four—that appear in writing to indicate that there has been an omission are called an ellipsis. The definition sounds all well and good . . . until we examine the real life of this little mark in the world and realize it’s not just that simple. Not only are there rules to contend with and style parameters to negotiate, we have conflicting advice from official sources.

Fortunately, Webster’s Style Manual—in the Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary (New Revised Edition 1996)—has a lot to say about ellipsis points. The following are excerpts from the impressively thorough entry:

Ellipsis points is the name most often given to periods when they are used, usually in groups of three, to signal an omission from quoted material or to indicate a pause or trailing off of speech.

If an omission comprises an entire sentence within a passage, the last part of a sentence within a passage, or the first part of a sentence other than the first quoted sentence, the end punctuation preceding or following the omission is retained and is followed by three periods.

Each ellipsis point is set off from other ellipsis points, from adjacent punctuation (except for quotation marks, which are closed up to the ellipsis points), and from surrounding text by a space. If a terminal period is used with ellipsis points, it precedes them with no space before it and one space after it.

NOTE: Many writers and editors, especially those writing in more informal contexts . . . use instead an alternative system in which all omissions are indicated by three periods and terminal periods that may precede or follow an omission are dropped.

The alternative system, or new way, seems to have taken precedence these days, and it’s done away with the spaces between the dots. This is the case with AP style, and The Guardian and Observer Style Guide states:

Use a space before and after ellipses, and three dots (with no spaces between them), in copy and headlines: “She didn’t want to go there … ” There is no need for a full point.

At first, this new way is pretty tempting. It’s much easier to remember “three periods, spaces both sides” than it is to get one’s head around the ten long rules in Webster’s. This use of ellipsis points with elided spaces works most of the time.

In fiction, going with the “three periods, spaces both sides” is not often an issue. However, I’ve found that the loss of the spaces and the fourth point—or the idea of a fourth place to be filled if needed—can be problematic at times.

Problems arise in dialogue, for example, when the writer wants to show a pause in speech after a question.

Webster’s Way
“Mary’s going? . . . She said she hated Suzie.”

New Way
“Mary’s going … She said she hated Suzie.”

Using the old way—with the terminal punctuation and spaces—makes it crystal clear that a question is being asked. Using the new way does not. So why does it matter? A question indicates that the speaker is surprised to hear Mary is going, i.e., Mary has a reason to avoid Suzie. A statement implies Mary may be going with an agenda, i.e., Mary could be going to confront Suzie. And as any writer knows, these little nuances can make all the difference in a book.