Why am I tearing my hair out over three little dots?

Punctuation should aid clarity for the reader. You would also expect the usage for each punctuation item to be standard. But for some items it is not.

Welcome to the ellipsis.

Ellipsis is used for:
  • omission (usually in non-fiction, but it leads to)
  • a narrator trailing off with something unfinished, leaving things hanging (as opposed to interrupted, which would be a dash)
  • a pause in speech or thought
An ellipsis is three dots. In the past there were sometimes spaces between them . . . as here. I actually like that appearance, but it is fading out as old-fashioned, so wouldn't be adopted by many new writers. Instead the ellipsis will appear as three dots together: ...

They shouldn't be overused in prose, but can be useful in capturing the nuances of speech - the telling pauses for thought, the changes of subject, the hints of the unspoken and so on.

However, there is an issue as to whether the ellipsis has a space before, after, both, or neither.

The Guardian Style Guide (p11; and David Marsh’s For Whom The Bell Tolls p101): says to use a space before and after, even at the end of a sentence. No other punctuation is to touch it.

"She didn't want to go there ... "

New Hart’s Rules (pp81-2) has a space on each side too, apart from when the ellipsis comes up against other punctuation, when the space can be removed (this treats ellipses exactly like en dashes, so is consistent):

"If we could ..."
Is it possible ...?

So we already have an issue - if there is a space, does it disappear when next to punctuation such as quotation marks and question marks, or does it remain? I've been reading a lot about ellipses recently, and most sources seem to follow the Hart's Rules approach.

The problem with the space before the ellipsis is that text which runs over a line can lead to awkward orphans such as this:

"If we could blah blah blah text fill in the gaps yourself this is just an example to fill space

(The Guardian approach could even lead to a closing quotation mark on its own line). Although you could manually try and find and fix every example of this in print, it would be time-consuming and fiddly; also, any reflowable medium like a web page or e-book would still suffer from it, with no way of correcting it.

I also feel that ending a sentence with a space and ellipsis looks like something is missing (since a full stop would not have a space), as here:

She didn't want to go there ...

The widow/orphan problem is why some publishers go against convention and remove all spacing so that ellipses appear...like this. It prevents awkward orphans, but looks wrong, like a snake that has been run over by a car.

A compromise could be to attach the ellipsis to the preceding word and have a space after, apart from when there is attached punctuation. Examples:

“Tell me… No. Forget it.”
“I want to go, but…” he said

This fixes the widow and orphan problem at the expense of breaking the standard recommended style. That could be an acceptable compromise if it works in every case; perhaps the standard style needs updating. But we come to a problem with even this solution. Examine the following.

"I would like a..."

Doesn't the ellipsis somehow look like it is obscuring letters after the "a", as if it is a Victorian attempt to protect us from the word "arse"? Or as if a new word trailed off unfinished. Retaining the space before it brings back the old orphan problem, but seems clearer as to where the sentence peters out:

"I would like a ..."

Another issue is that, as I mentioned at the start, an ellipsis could indicate either a pause, or a sentence petering out. How do you make that distinction? Consider the following.

“I ran away when … John hit me.”

Is that one sentence with a pause, or two sentences where one trailed off? There is no way to tell, but the difference alters the meaning.

This brings me back to the system I used in the past, which would make that distinction. The system was advised by one of my editors, who said:
"Note on ellipsis. (I think someone could write an entire paper on the correct usage of ellipses!) My understanding is that if they precede a new sentence, then there is only a space before the beginning of the new sentence, but if mid-sentence, there should be a space either side."
That is, put a space around either side of an ellipsis when it is mid-sentence (pause in speech), but not when it ends a sentence, representing speech trailing off (in which case it is also doing double duty as a full stop). Examples:

“I would like a ... oh, I don't know ... a change in my life?” [mid-sentence, spaced]
“I want to go, but…” he said. [end-sentence, only a space after, unless punctuation follows it]
“Tell me… No. Forget it.” [end-sentence, only a space after]
“Please… What’s wrong?” [end-sentence, only a space after]
“Please … tell me what’s wrong.” [mid-sentence, spaced]

If I go back to the ambiguous sentence earlier, this system makes it clear whether it is one or two sentences.

“I ran away when … John hit me.”
[A single paused sentence; she left when John hit her; paused because it was difficult to admit; John hitting her is the key fact]

“I ran away when… John hit me.”
[Two sentences, one of which is unfinished; we do not know when she ran away, or why; she seems so reticent to tell us that she changes the subject, introducing a new and dramatic topic to distract us; the thing that made her run away may be the key fact, currently hidden]

This system only seems to have one downside: if the reader is not aware of this distinction (that a space before the ellipsis gives useful information), is there any point to it? Worse, what if both kinds occur in the same sentence? Then the author may just look like they are being inconsistent:

"I would like a change ... in my life. I want to go, but… Tell me the truth!"

Of course, in those cases I could rewrite the sentence, but it seems strange to have to rewrite things to get around the failure of a punctuation mark.

The only other solution I have come across is to show the end of a sentence by adding a fourth stop to the ellipse. But this opens up a whole can of worms, based on which competing style guide you follow.

"I want to go, but. ... Ooh, ice-cream!" [Chicago Manual of Style]
"I want to go, but. . . . Ooh, ice-cream!" [Modern Language Association]
"I want to go, but.... Ooh, ice-cream!" [Elements of Typographic Style]

However, to my mind it seems wrong to have a full stop after the but - a full stop indicates the end of a sentence, but this sentence did not end, it trailed off unfinished. The systems also vary in how they add other punctuation e.g. a question mark, or exclamation mark.

"I want to go, will you let me? ..." [Chicago Manual of Style]
"I want to go, will you let me...?" [Elements of Typographic Style]

Adding a fourth stop just leads to the need for even more complexity and variety.

Which brings me full circle. There doesn't seem to be a definitive source covering the use of ellipses and spacing at the end of a sentence. I read everything I could find on ellipses in 2016, and asked questions in grammar/punctuation groups (which were often American and derailed things by suggesting em dashes). Almost every suggested format was flawed, clunky or inconsistent in some way. And usually when you read about ellipses they give only one or two examples, conveniently avoiding any that would be problematic when using their espoused system. I skimmed through Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission by Anne Toner (2015) the other day, but even that tome did not give any clear guidance on modern usage which would avoid the problems I am struggling with above.

So here's a challenge. Rules for using an ellipsis that avoid the flaws mentioned in this post. Does such a set of commandments exist? If not, I think I have decided which system I will adopt as "final" for my books. After all, life is rarely perfect.

Further reading: