How to Use Ellipses in Your Written Works: 9 Easy Steps

Learn how to use ellipses in your writing, even in tricky situations. 

Have you ever heard someone say, “dot-dot-dot,” indicating they are leaving out a thought or idea? If so, you have heard someone verbalize the idea of the ellipsis.

An ellipsis is made from three carefully spaced period marks. In writing, it can show omitted words and trailing thoughts, depending on the style guide. Because the ellipsis gets used so rarely, keeping track of the rules surrounding this punctuation mark is not always easy.

This guide will help you go through your next written piece word-for-word to listen to verses.

Materials Needed:

  • Computer with writing software
  • Paper and pens
  • Grammar checking software
  • Your draft writing piece
  • Any research material or sources used in your writing piece

Step 1: Show Trailing Thoughts

How to use ellipses: Show trailing thoughts
You can use an ellipsis to show thoughts trailing off in the middle of the sentence

In informal writing, you can use an ellipsis to show thoughts trailing off in the middle of the sentence. This commonly occurs when you are writing out someone’s thoughts or dialogue. For example, you might say:

  • If only he had . . . Well, it doesn’t matter now.

“If only he had” is not a complete sentence, but the writer intends not to write a complete sentence. Instead, in this instance, the writer wants to show that the thoughts are trailing off in a different direction.

Step 2: Leave Blanks in Quoted Material

If you are quoting something in a formal writing assignment, you will use an ellipsis to show where you left words out that were in the original work. Whether you put the quote in quotation marks or set it apart as an indented quote, you will use an ellipsis to show it if you skip part of the author’s original work. For example, consider a transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The second paragraph of the speech reads:

“But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”

If you are quoting a portion of a piece but leaving out parts in the middle, you would use an ellipsis, as in:

  • “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. . . . And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

The ellipsis shows that you left out a sizeable portion of the original work.

Step 3: Check Your Style Guide

All three major style guides, including MLA, APA, and Chicago style, have their own rules about ellipses use. Before any academic writing, check your style guide and familiarize yourself with its rules. When you are familiar with what the style guide requires, you can start quoting and using the ellipses effectively within a quoted piece.

Step 4: Add the Ellipsis after Punctuation

If the portion of a quote ends with a punctuation mark, you will leave that mark in place before adding the ellipsis. For example, if the omitted portion of a direct quote comes after a complete sentence, you will still place a period at the end of the sentence. The ellipsis will follow the period. Thus, you will have three dots after the initial period.

  • “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. . . . And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

If the quoted portion ends in a comma, you will leave it and use the ellipsis afterward.

  • “But 100 years later, . . . the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”

The same rule holds for exclamation marks, question marks, semicolons, and colons.

Step 5: Know When to Use Four Dots

If you quote a piece that has multiple sentences, you may need to use four dots from time to time. Specifically, if the omission comes between two or more original sentences, you will use a period followed by the three dots to end the sentence. Thus you have four dots total, and the fourth one shows the full stop of the period.

  • “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled. . . . One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Even though “crippled” was not the last word of the sentence in the original quote, the ellipsis shows up between the two sentences, and thus it needs four dots. No matter how you use an ellipsis, it never has more than four dots or periods in the pattern. So you will have four if the ellipsis shows the end of the sentence, and you will have three if it does not.

Step 6: End with an Ellipsis

If your work uses the MLA style guide, you will add an ellipsis at the end of the quotation if you did not quote the entire passage. For example:

  • “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. . . .”

However, you would not add this final ellipsis in the Chicago Manual of Style or AP style. Instead, you would end with a period:

  • “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free.”

Step 7: Do Not Add Ellipses At the Beginning

Never add an ellipsis at the beginning of a sentence. Even if you start the quote later in the passage, start with a capital letter. Both the MLA and the AP stylebook agree on this point. In addition, if you do not start with the first word of the sentence from the original work, it’s OK to change the initial capitalization to a capital letter of the portion you use.

Here is an example:

  • “The Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

In the original piece, the opening sentence starts with “But 100 years later.” However, this is not part of the quote. Still, you do not use an ellipsis and capitalize “the” for clarity.

Step 8: Skip the Ellipsies for Middle Sentence Quotes

If you add a quote in the middle of a sentence, you do not need to offset it with an ellipsis. Instead, use a comma and quotation mark to show the quoted material, like this:

  • In his famous speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty,” indicating a challenging state for the modern African American.

The fact that you included the quote in the middle of the sentence like this shows that you did not quote the entire passage.

Step 9: Avoid Using Too Many Ellipsis

The overuse of ellipses is a common mistake in English grammar. Ensure you do not use too many because they make the work harder to read. If you find yourself relying too heavily on them and writing an informal piece, you can use an m-dash to show interrupted dialogue instead. For formal writing, try to rephrase what you’re writing to eliminate the use of ellipsis marks, and you will be in far better shape.

If you still need help, our guide to grammar and punctuation explains more.

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