Stop . . . It . . . Now! (Only You Can Prevent Ellipsis Abuse)

Let’s talk about some little dots. Three (or four) little dots all in a row.


I call them ellipsis, but after a quick look at the Chicago Manual of Style, I discovered that this term applies only when they’re used to indicate an omission of some sort. When they’re used to indicate faltering speech, they’re called suspension points. But to heck with Chicago. I’m still calling them ellipsis (when I’m not calling them the work of the devil!)


There’s something about writing fantasy fiction that compels writers to season their stories with these salty little buggers. They can bring out the flavor of your fiction, creating suspense when and where you need it, giving your characters distinctive voices in dialogue. (Sometimes it’s what your characters don’t say that matters just as much as what they do!) But just like salt, a little can go a long way—and when used with too much abandon, it can ruin the dish.


The worst offender? Using the ellipsis to indicate interrupted speech.


“I wanted to tell you all about ellipsis but . . .”

“No one cares!” she interrupted.


That’s wrong. Interruptions and abrupt shifts in thought should always be expressed with an em dash. It should be:

“I wanted to tell you all about ellipsis but—”

“No one cares!” she interrupted.


I find myself making this correction all the time when editing manuscripts. Let’s all make a pledge right now. Raise your right hand: “On my honor, I shall not use ellipsis points to indicate an interruption, but instead will indicate a break with an em dash, so help me, Chicago Manual of Style.”


Next up, ellipsis used to show faltering, stuttering speech. This one doesn’t bug me! It can be a useful technique to indicate the emotion of the speaker—much more authentic than adding adverbs in your dialogue tags. But like almost anything, beware of overusing it. If every single one of your characters stutters, the impact is gone and worse, all your characters sound the same. Send a few of them to a speech therapist and find another quirk to distinguish them from one another.



Unless an editor specifically requests it, don’t replace the ellipsis with the symbol for ellipsis. Ellipsis should be formatted as dot [space] dot [space] dot [space].  If you want to get really fancy, use non-breaking spaces. This means that when the book is typeset, the ellipsis won’t break a line. In dialogue, if the . . . is at the end of the sentence, you eliminate the final space before the closing quotation mark.


This is what I  . . . I mean.

I repeat, “This is what I . . . I mean . . .”



Now let’s talk about the em dash . . .

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