OVERUSED PUNCTUATION & ELLIPSES

Are you a punctuation junkie?

Exclamation points.

Ellipses.

Em dashes.

They provide clarity when used well but annoy readers if overexploited.

This section will help you conquer your overdependence on !, …, and —.

Ellipses … Bane or Blessing?

Before we begin, let’s consider the definition of ellipsis:

a sign (such as …) used in printed text to show that words have been left out.”

An ellipsis can also indicate a pause, or an unfinished thought or sentence. Scattered judiciously, ellipses add clarity and character to a piece.

Creative writers most commonly lean on ellipses to show pauses in speech or action. Depending on the style guide, you’ll see either of two approaches:

She stopped at the door … and waited.

She stopped at the door . . . and waited.

Both are complete sentences that could also be expressed as:

She stopped at the door and waited.

Consider the differences between the preceding examples and these.

She stopped at the door. … It was locked.

She stopped at the door. . . . It was locked.

A pause in action separates two complete sentences. The first sentence ends with a period, which is followed by a space, an ellipsis, and another complete sentence.

Note: There is no such thing as a four-dot ellipsis. I repeat, and the style guides agree: There is no such thing as a four-dot ellipsis.

Consider the following examples.

The teacher spoke so rapidly that the world is dying. … floods, earthquakes. We must act now.”

The teacher spoke so rapidly that the student was unable to record everything she said. “The world is dying. . . . floods, earthquakes. We must act now.”

The second example seems to contain a four-dot ellipsis. However, the four dots represent the closing period of a complete sentence, a space, and a three-dot ellipsis to indicate a missing word or words, plus the rest of the quoted speech.

Spaces … spaces. Don’t omit the spaces.

Style guides agree on one point:

All ellipses should be set off by spaces.

Correct:

She stopped at the door … and waited.

She stopped at the door . . . and waited.

Incorrect:

She stopped at the door…and waited.

She stopped at the door. . .and waited.

If you omit the surrounding spaces, this is how your words could split at the end of a sentence:

Julie heard something in the hall. She stopped at the
door…and waited.

Julie heard something in the hall. She stopped at the
door. . .and waited.

Software treats the combination of door…and as a single word. When you use spaces as the style guides recommend, sentence splits appear more logical. 

Julie heard something in the hall. She stopped at the door …
and waited.

Because ellipses are sticky punctuation, they remain attached to the words they adjoin.

The only time you break the rule about surrounding ellipses with spaces is in this type of situation:

She yelled, “Get out or …”

She yelled, “Get out or . . .”

If you precede the closing quotation mark with a space, you could end up with the following scenario, isolating the quotation mark at the beginning of an empty line:

She yelled, “Get out or …”

She yelled, “Get out or . . .”

Why I don’t like . . . ellipses.

If you use the . . . approach, Microsoft Word and many other text editors will count each period as a separate word. When you’re writing flash fiction or short stories where economy of words is important, that can create a huge problem.

This sentence counts as five words in MS-Word: He whirled … and fell.

This one as seven: He whirled . . . and fell.

Another difficulty with . . . ellipses is the way they often divide at the end of a line. You could wind up with confusing splits like:

She stopped at the door . .
. and waited.

That’s unattractive and confusing.

Non-breaking spaces between the dots solve the problem, but not all software makes it easy to insert them. The key sequence in MS Word for a non-breaking space is CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE.

To convert the ellipsis in He whirled . . . and fell, the MS-Word sequence would be:

He whirled [SPACE] . [CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE] . [CTRL-SHIFT-SPACE] . [SPACE] and fell.

Why … why … why?

We live in the twenty-first century. Why do some style guides, publishers, and copyeditors still cling to the old-fashioned dot-space-dot-space-dot ellipsis?

It’s ugly. It’s word-bloating.

Let’s kick it to the curb.

Should you belong to Ellipses Anonymous?

You know who you are.

An ellipsis here … an ellipsis there … and soon you have a WIP scattered with so many dots it looks like a petri dish overflowing with exotic bacteria.

Consider the following.

“Er … um … ,” said Alyssa. “I … uh … think I … love you, Leon.”

Please. Kill. Me. Now.

The narrator wants to show Alyssa’s hesitation, but the excessive ellipses will annoy readers.

Better:

Alyssa stared at the floor, scuffing the carpet with one toe. A blush blossomed in her cheeks. “I think I love you, Leon.”

A second example:

A cat in heat yowled somewhere … nearby. Andrew reached into his pocket for his revolver

Why the ellipses? Commas would work just as well.

Apples, oranges, bananas, and pears spilled from the cart, making the street look more like a fruit salad than a thoroughfare.

Search through your WIP.

Analyze every ellipsis. Would your writing be stronger without it? Overused ellipses are just as annoying as overdone words, perhaps more so.

An exercise in conciseness and creativity.

Remove all ellipses in the following to create micro fiction, or build on the examples and milk them as story prompts for longer pieces.

“I don’t care … it’s just … I can’t.” Brandy ran her fingers through her hair … so thin … so brittle. “No more treatments … no more … I’ve had enough.”

Brit skulked forward on all fours … One palm squished into something warm … squishy. “Crap,” she muttered.

Hayley suppressed a giggle … and whispered, “I told you it was a bad idea … you know … to rob this place right after the dog walker came through.”

The moon rose … huge over a rugged skyline with jutting trees … ragged rocks … a flat plateau to the right … An owl’s hoot pierced the sharp night air … filling it with an eerie quality … a sound that slithered up Susan’s spine like