How to use an ellipsis in English

by Laura Jones
January 19, 2021
woman online talking to her teacher about how to use ellipsis in English

What is an ellipsis? Come on … 

An ellipsis is a series of three dots, used as a punctuation mark, like the ones above. The plural of ellipsis is ellipses. The word ellipsis comes from a Greek word which means omission or leave out. We use ellipses to leave words out of a sentence, or to show unfinished sentences or thoughts. Let’s have a closer look at how we use them in English

What does an ellipsis look like?

Like I said, an ellipsis is a series of three dots. It can come at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence. If it comes at the end of a sentence, you usually need to use a punctuation mark after it, especially in formal writing.

Wait, where are you …? 

They said they’d be … .

Whether you leave spaces around or between the dots depends on which style you follow. The Oxford Style Guide says that you should leave a space before and after the dots, but not between them. This is the style we’re using here. However, other style guides say there should be spaces between each dot, like this: . . . . Whatever style you decide on, stay consistent.  

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How to use an ellipsis in a sentence

We can use an ellipsis to show that we have deliberately missed out part of a sentence, quotation, or phrase. We do this when we need to leave less relevant information out to make a sentence more readable or easier to understand. Ellipses help us save space in our writing. 

Don’t try to call me. I’ll be out from 9am – 9pm, so all day. 

Don’t try to call me. I’ll be out … all day. 

I went to work on Monday morning, it was a lovely, sunny day, and I met John running down the hallway. 

I went to work on Monday morning … and I met John running down the hallway.  

If you want to miss out the beginning of the sentence, a lot of writers use an ellipsis plus a capital letter in square brackets: 

… [I]t was a lovely, sunny day, and I met John running down the hallway. 

Other writers don’t think the ellipsis is necessary here. You can choose which style you prefer, but don’t change your mind halfway through your writing! 

Ellipses are often used in more formal writing, especially in academic writing when you are quoting something or someone else. Here’s a quotation from Jane Austen, an English writer, to show how we might do it: 

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

We can shorten it like this: 

“The person … who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

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Using an ellipsis to show a pause

We can also use an ellipsis to show a pause or hesitation in speech or thought. We use an ellipsis in this way when we are reporting what someone said or thought. Similarly, we can use an ellipsis to show suspense or a change in mood. We usually use this in informal writing; not in formal or academic writing.

Let’s look at some examples of this: 

“Let’s see … where were we?”

“Hmm, I’m not sure … ”

Ben heard a noise in the corridor outside. But, he was alone in the building …

As you can see, in these informal sentences, if the ellipsis is at the end of a phrase or sentence, we don’t need to use a full stop.

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The overuse of ellipses

Ellipses are useful in our writing. But, sometimes we can have too much of a good thing. In recent years, people have been using an ellipsis more and more often. 

They might use it to replace a different punctuation mark:

How’s the game going…

In correct written language, this should be a question mark, not an ellipsis. 

People also use it to show a place where we say um or erm if we were speaking. You might get emails that look like this: 

I haven’t heard from sales yet … is there someone else I can talk to? Not sure what to do … I’m waiting for your answer.  

There shouldn’t be any ellipses in those sentences. The email would be much clearer and look more professional if it was written like this: 

I haven’t heard from sales yet. Is there someone else I can talk to? Not sure what to do;  I’m waiting for your answer.  

So, use ellipses with care!

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