Using Ellipses in Dialogue

Punctuation is hard to master in everyday writing. Fiction adds a layer of complexity because of the different way dialogue is punctuated. As if commas weren’t hard enough to wrangle on their own, dialogue puts a special twist on a couple of marks that don’t otherwise see a lot of use.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

In nonfiction writing, ellipses are used only to show omissions. But they have a special use in dialogue to indicate a trailing off of the character’s speech.

Remember our flustered presenter from last time?

“I guess …” she clicked around, vainly searching for the right version. “Looks like … I think I misplaced the new version.”

The ellipses, or as Chicago prefers to call them in this usage, “suspension points,” indicate that she’s hesitating or drawing out the sentence.

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You do not normally use terminal punctuation with an ellipsis at the end of a sentence.

“Sorry, this is really …” She couldn’t finish.

A period is not needed after the ellipsis. You can use a comma before a dialogue tag if you have to:

“Sorry, this is really …,” she said.

But it looks funny, so I recommend rewriting the tag to avoid that. Notice that within a sentence there are spaces on either side of the ellipsis, but not at the end of a sentence or before another punctuation mark.

A question mark can follow the ellipsis if appropriate.

She couldn’t find the correct file. “What the …?”

A note about typesetting: Chicago Manual of Style recommends “three spaced periods.” If you are submitting your manuscript to the University of Chicago Press, I guess you ought to type them that way. To avoid having the ellipsis break at the end of the line, use nonbreaking spaces between the periods.

But when I researched the topic of typesetting ellipses years ago—yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my time on—I discovered that preferences for the typesetting of ellipses vary, but the one thing all page designers agreed on was that it doesn’t really matter how you type your ellipses as long as you do it consistently throughout your document. As long as they’re all the same, the page designer can do a find-and-replace to change it with whatever their house style is.

(One of my concerns is that vast amounts of time are wasted by copyeditors changing ellipsis characters to three spaced periods, which are then changed back to ellipsis characters by page designers.)

There are three ways to type ellipses: spaced periods, as noted above; three periods with no spaces, which, depending on your settings, Word may automagically convert to an ellipsis character; and entering the ellipsis character. I recommend using the latter because it’s fast, looks good, and is harder to mess up. If you’re self-publishing, you can leave it that way. If you’re submitting for traditional publication, find out whether your publisher has a preference and do it that way.

Typing special characters

Nonbreaking space in Word for Windows: ctrl + shift + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Windows: alt + ctrl + period
Em dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + alt + minus key (on the numeric keypad)

Nonbreaking space in Word for Mac: option + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Mac: option + semicolon
Em dash in Word for Mac: option + shift + hyphen

Next time: em dashes in dialogue


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  1. […] discussed em dashes and ellipses in the dialog section. In fiction, outside of dialog, there’s not much use for ellipses, though […]

  2. […] The rules for ellipses in nonfiction differ slightly from those in fiction. In fiction, ellipses signal a hesitation or trailing off of speech. But in nonfiction, they indicate omissions from quoted material. If you’re writing a memoir or other narrative nonfiction, you may use ellipses the way they’re used in fiction. […]

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