Saturday, December 18, 2021

Still Life with Robin: On the Overuse of Ellipses....

'Tis the season ... for complaints! The three dots (ellipses) are there to indicate my hesitation in bringing up this point of proper punctuation. I've been editing messages on the listserv for over twenty years and this is the first time I've complained about the overuse --and misuse-- of ellipses. I give myself credit for holding back so long. Now I feel I've earned the right to grouse a bit.

Ellipses are there to be used in two -- and only two! -- circumstances:

1. Ellipses indicate that some quoted material has been omitted.

2. Ellipses are used in informal writing or dialogue to indicate a pause, hesitation, or an unfinished thought.
Source: The Punctuation Guide, 

That's it! So all you listserv posters out there who are ending every phrase with three dots: CUT IT OUT!

Virtually every time I see ellipses in a listserv post, I find myself wondering, "Is this person guessing? Are they unsure of what they're saying?"

The truth is, I have no idea what purpose the writer thinks the ellipses are serving. When they are sprinkled so liberally throughout a post, the usage appears to be something of a literary flourish, showing up in every line, the way Emily Dickinson used dashes in her poetry.  I'm tempted to write to posters to ask, "Are you leaving things out? Is that why the ellipses are here? Or are you just letting us know these are your half-finished thoughts, and you'd have more to say if you could just figure out how to say it?"

Of course, I don't do that. Most of the time I just mutter to myself in a curmudgeonly way, "Too many damn ellipses!" and send out the post in all its elliptical glory. Occasionally, if the poster is recounting a series of events in what are indisputably complete sentences, I will replace the confusing ellipses with periods. But only if it makes the meaning clearer.

The trouble is, these dots seems to be multiplying. I see more and more posters using them everywhere. Time to stop muttering to myself and take a stand! Here it is, so you have your fair warning: If you use ellipses in a listserv post for anything other than to indicate the omission of quoted text, or a a half-formed thought trailing off into the ether, or a hesitation about what you are going to say next [pause]. Well, I just may do [hesitation] something about it!

--Peggy Robin
Cleveland Park Listserv Moderator & Editor
Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.


  1. Can't speak for anyone else, but my own personal self accepts that the universe in its infinite complexity can and eventually will prove false every utterance I could ever conceive (and who am I to assume otherwise?) Thus, my default is to leave space for update, qualification, renunciation, repudiation and all the other -ations that pertain...

    1. Good point, Sir Landsmith! "Ellipsis" comes from the Greek "elleipein," which means to leave out----to omit superfluous words/phrases. Imagine---less is more!

      Perhaps Still Life would next comment on why celebratory holidays inspire some people just to want MORE!

  2. Aah. This reminds me of a teaching moment in a class on international law. After two short papers, I was exasperated and decided on an intervention.

    I put up a colon on the board with the word "colon" beside it. I announced it could only be used

    (1) preceding a list, in which case proper usage was ": namely," followed by the items in the list.

    (2) for a colonoscopy.

    It was semi-successful. Colon appearances decreased.And at least three students asked me what a colonoscopy is.

    Ah, youth.


    1. I concede all my poor punctuations
      And my clear-as-mud clarifications
      So feel free to blame me
      But not dear Miss Amy
      Whom I count on for good explications

  3. I would agree with a slight modification. The incomplete thought might be complete in the writers mind and they are pretty sure that it will be completed correctly in the readers mind if the reader actively completes the thought. Tricky? Prone to error? Yes. But potentially a nice touch.

  4. Great post Robin!

    From time to time I've used them to indicate a pregnant pause... for dramatic affect... but you are pointing out the obvious, I'm occasionally a drama queen.

    Laughing and enjoying your effort to improve our writing. I hope you do it more often.

  5. I really dislike ellipses, especially at work. Just say what you mean. Do the work of formulating complete thoughts.