Dot Dot Dot: A Closer Look at the Ellipsis

Punctuation Party

If you follow Chicago style, it’s a safe bet you know that a Chicago-style ellipsis consists of three spaced periods.

You probably also know that an ellipsis is used to mark an omission from quoted speech or text. And that an ellipsis can signal an incomplete or unstated thought, or a pause or gap in speech or text.

But I’m not concerned with any of those uses here. Instead I want to consider the ellipsis as a mark of punctuation.

The traditional ellipsis

As a copyeditor who works primarily with books, I see spaced periods (. . .) as normal. This is the traditional style in English for the ellipsis, so it’s familiar to me not only from my work but also from the novels that I read for enjoyment.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that spaced periods aren’t easy to manage. The problem is that you have to use nonbreaking spaces to keep the periods from getting separated at the end of a line.*

So, why not … instead of . . . ? In other words, everyone knows there’s an ellipsis character, so shouldn’t we be using it?

First, a little history.

Three dots or four?

Though the phrase “dot dot dot” now seems obvious (three is the minimum number suggesting repetition, or the idea that there is more to come), the number of dots in an ellipsis wasn’t always a settled matter (nor, incidentally, was the use of periods rather than, say, dashes or asterisks).

The first edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, published in 1906 (as Manual of Style), recommended four dots, not three: “For an ellipsis at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence four periods, separated by a space (en-quad), should ordinarily be used, except in very narrow measures. If the preceding line ends in a point, this should not be included in the four” (¶ 164).†

This advice persisted until 1949, when the eleventh edition recommended the now standard three dots (plus any preceding period), separated by a regular amount of space (¶ 199).

In case you’re wondering, the style guide for Oxford University Press (one of the main arbiters of British style) also started with four spaced periods in its earliest iterations, in the 1890s, but modernized more quickly than Chicago. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Oxford was already recommending the standard three.‡

The ellipsis character

The number of dots may have been settled by the middle of the last century, but the ellipsis character as a single entity had yet to be invented. It wasn’t until the 1970s that published books even started to mention such a thing, as you can see in this Google Ngram chart:

These mentions took off with the growth of personal computing and desktop publishing systems in the 1980s. By 1993, the ellipsis was officially encoded for Unicode (with a hexadecimal code point of 2026). Now, pretty much every modern typeface includes one.

Twitter etc.

The ellipsis character offers some advantages on social media platforms. Just try preventing . . . from breaking over the line in Twitter. It can be done, but not without difficulty,** and it’s a huge waste of s p a c e ! (Twitter has a 280-character limit, including spaces.)

So yeah—even I prefer the ellipsis character over three spaced periods, at least in Twitter.

But this preference has influenced my behavior in other contexts. I now also tend to favor the unbreakable ellipsis character wherever I might need to use one (usually to show that I’ve omitted text from a quotation), whether in Word or Gmail or wherever.†† And I suspect a lot of people these days assume that the ellipsis character is simply correct.

MS Word, Special Characters, ellipsis

In Microsoft Word, an ellipsis can be inserted via Insert > Symbol > Special Characters. Note, incidentally, the unspaced ellipses on the “AutoCorrect…” and “Shortcut Key…” buttons.

Converting … to . . .

But when I prepare a manuscript for publication, I rely on find and replace to apply traditional Chicago-style ellipses, still the standard in American book publishing. For example,

“Words … words …, more words. … Words, words, words …”

becomes

“Words . . . words . . . , more words. . . . Words, words, words . . .”

You do have to account for ellipses next to commas, periods, and other marks of punctuation (there is no space next to a quotation mark, for example, even with Chicago-style ellipses)—and don’t forget to include the nonbreaking spaces. But for a copyeditor, spacing is always something to pay close attention to.

What about three unspaced periods?

Another option for the ellipsis is simply to type three unspaced periods. That’s okay too—and, like the ellipsis character, unspaced periods won’t break over a line. But the true ellipsis saves two characters in Twitter. And it’s more semantically precise—in other words, an ellipsis is unlikely to be mistaken for anything else, at least by a computer.‡‡

So the next time you need an ellipsis, be thankful that there are only three dots—and that we live in the era of Unicode.


* Unicode defines the “no-break space” as 00A0, which is what Chicago recommends. This is the same as a regular space (0020) except that it doesn’t break. Some publishers prefer instead to use smaller spaces—for example, the “narrow no-break space” defined for Unicode as 202F. You can read up on these and other characters in Unicode’s handy code charts.

† An en quad (Chicago dropped the hyphen from that term as of 1914, when the 4th edition of the Manual was published) is half an em; the usual space between words recommended at that time was a third of an em. So an ellipsis not only consisted of an extra period but was also spaced more widely.

‡ See Anne Toner, Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 152. Note that Oxford began by recommending em spaces between the dots, whether four or three.

** In Twitter on Chrome for Windows, it should work to copy a nonbreaking space (00A0) directly from the Character Map or to get the same character by typing Alt+255 (using the numeric keypad). But these methods don’t necessarily work in other browsers or across all apps.

†† To get an ellipsis, try Alt+0133 in Windows; on a Mac, use the Option key plus a semicolon. In Word for Windows, try Alt+Ctrl plus a period, or use the Symbol dialog box. On some virtual keyboards, you can get to the character by holding down the period.

‡‡ Unspaced periods work best in at least one scenario. In a monospaced font like Courier New, the ellipsis character is forced to take up the same width as a single period (or any other single character), making it look unnaturally small. So in something like a screenplay (where Courier is the traditional choice), three periods work better as an ellipsis. (In a copyeditor’s life, there are no simple answers.)

Top image: “Punctuation Party,” by Hilary B. Price. Rhymes with Orange © 2015 Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc., Hearst Holdings Inc. Used with permission.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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3 thoughts on “Dot Dot Dot: A Closer Look at the Ellipsis

  1. I also found the ellipsis character elegant in Microsoft Word. With what edition of Word did that end?

    • The spacing in an ellipsis character depends on font (or typeface). With the release of Office 2007, Times New Roman was replaced by Calibri as the default font in Word. And it’s true, the ellipsis is more widely spaced in Times New Roman than it is in Calibri. But you can always switch back to TNR. 🙂

  2. Not a fan of the three spaced periods, for all the reasons noted here. Nor of the ellipsis character with no spaces at all. But in older versions of Microsoft Word, the ellipsis character used to be three dots spaced at about half the width of the font. I thought it solved the problem elegantly.

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