Using Ellipses Properly in Nonfiction

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.

When you use an ellipsis to indicate an omission, you must take care not to misrepresent the original text. Using ellipses to get around parts of a quoted work that oppose your argument while leaving the bits that support it is cheating the reader. For similar reasons, don’t use an ellipsis to join sentences from passages that are widely separated in the original.

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If you’re quoting, say, the second half of a sentence, and it stands alone, don’t use an ellipsis at the beginning. You may change the capitalization of the first word, except in the most stringent academic environments. You needn’t use an ellipsis at the end of a quotation, “even if the end of the sentence has been omitted,” as Chicago says, unless the sentence is incomplete. As you see here, I’ve incorporated the quotation from CMOS 13.50 into a grammatically complete sentence, so the ellipsis is not needed.

In fiction, there is never a call for a four-dot ellipsis, but in nonfiction you would use four dots if you quote from a complete sentence and then omit the first part of the following sentence. Any other punctuation mark from the original—a comma, colon, or question mark for example—that’s required to understand the quotation should be retained. But if the excerpt makes sense without the mark, leave it out as part of the elision. Examples from Chicago 13.52:

The spirit of our American radicalism is destructive and aimless. . . . On the other side, the conservative party . . . is timid, and merely defensive of property.

It does not build, . . . nor cherish the arts, nor foster religion.

Note the four-dot ellipsis after aimless, and the comma before the ellipsis after build.

The most common error I see people make with ellipses, though, is essentially a typo. I see writers who use varying numbers of dots, spaced or not, indiscriminately throughout a document. Four or five spaced dots here, three unspaced dots there, and once in a while only two. There is never any call for two periods in succession, spaced or not. It’s enough to drive a typesetter batty.

When typing your manuscript, you may use either the ellipsis character ( … ) or three spaced periods ( . . . ). If you use the latter, use nonbreaking spaces to keep the dots together. It really doesn’t matter which form you use, as long as you use the proper number of dots—three or four, as the occasion calls for. And form them consistently. Consistency is the important thing, so your page designer can find and replace them with the publisher’s preferred version if necessary. I favor the ellipsis character, because it’s essentially a single keystroke. Either way, put spaces on either side of the ellipsis, except when the ellipsis is adjacent to a quotation mark. In that case, close it up.

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)
En dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + 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
En dash in Word for Mac: option + hyphen

Next week: em dashes and en dashes in nonfiction.

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