by Nathanael "Sassafras" Buckman, Managing Editor
As a member of the editing team, I have noticed a variety of punctuation problems that mar the effect of a piece. To counter these instances of what George Orwell would call “barbarous English,” I have assembled a simple overview of Grub Street’s punctuation guide. In this essay, I will go over some simple techniques to stylize ellipses properly.
Our main example will focus on the following sentence: “The child ate a sandwich while sitting on the dark green bench in the park.”
If we wanted to omit some of the details of the sentence, we can use ellipses (three dots) to accomplish this feat: “The child ate a sandwich . . . in the park.” Each dot is an ellipsis. Note that there is a space before and after each ellipsis. The ellipses show that we are omitting something. Generally, if the portion we are omitting is less than one sentence, we use the three-dot ellipses; however, this is not always the case.
In some cases, you might see four dots. Don’t panic. The fourth dot signifies one of two things: that the sentence is ending (thus serving as terminal punctuation) or that the writer has omitted more than one sentence, such as a paragraph.
Now if we were to end the sentence with ellipses, we must also include a terminal mark in addition to the ellipses. For instance, our sentence would look like this: “The child ate a sandwich. . . .” In this example, we have four dots—the first one immediately follows the h and is the terminal mark. It does not have a space before it, but it does have one after it. The ellipses follow the period, with each ellipsis having a space before and after, except for the final ellipsis.
We also can use ellipses and terminal punctuation in the middle of a quotation: “The child ate a sandwich. . . . The sky was cloudy.” This example indicates that we are ending the first sentence, omitting information, and introducing a new sentence. The key feature besides the space before and after each ellipsis (except for no space between the h and the terminal mark) is that the final ellipsis has a space after it.
Rarely will we find ellipses opening a quotation—doing so is both tacky and messy. Instead, we either incorporate the quotation into our own sentence or use the quotation on its own standing. For example: “As the babysitter was filling a water bottle, ‘[t]he child ate a sandwich while sitting on the dark green bench in the park.’” Here I introduce the quotation as my main sentence using an introductory adverbial clause. I use brackets around the t to indicate that I am changing the sentence from its original form, specifically indicating that I am changing the case form of the letter. I don’t need any ellipses because I have used the entire original sentence, grafting it with my introductory dependent clause.
Additionally, ellipses can also signify a speaker’s voice trailing off: “The child ate a sandwich and said, ‘The sky looks cloudy and. . . .’” This stylization heightens the drama of the scene, showing that ellipses affect the piece’s tone. Note the inclusion of the terminal mark.
Ellipses are effective tools that add concision to a person’s writing, adding nuance to a sentence and diversifying sentence types. Effective writing needs effective punctuation. Understanding your audience will help you to determine what portion of a sentence is unnecessary and therefore omittable.
Let us know what other type of punctuation mark you would like to understand better. For now, rest assured that with the knowledge of how to style ellipses, your writing will be all the stronger.
Grub Street is Towson University's award-winning literary journal, run by undergraduates enrolled in "Editing the Literary Magazine."