Say, what’s the rumpus? I ain’t going back to the big house, see? I’ll fill ya full of lead, copper! I’ll fit you for a Chicago overcoat, see?

Too many ellipses on a page and the text begins to look as though a 1930s-era gangster had strafed it with a tommy gun. Rat-a-tat-tat! Ellipses represent omitted text and are also used in dialogue to indicate pauses and trailing off. (Judge me if you will, but I’ll also cop to using them excessively in e-mail and when chatting.)

The presentation of ellipses, however, is the cause of much disagreement. Should you use spaces between the periods? Should you use a nonbreaking ellipsis character? Why do you sometimes see four periods?

The Chicago Manual of Style, my go-to reference, recommends using three spaced periods with a space before the first period and a space after the third (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning . . . he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”) This is my preference. My eyes flow easily from period to period, and I’m reminded of a stone skipping across water.

For a quotation, Chicago recommends using the terminal punctuation followed by the ellipsis when the omitted text follows the end of a complete sentence (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .”). There we have the four periods, which aren’t a four-period ellipsis at all but a period followed by an ellipsis. Note that there is no space between the last word of the sentence and the terminal period.

To some eyes, three spaced periods are not as attractive as a formatted ellipsis character or simply three typed periods with no spaces in between. Holding the periods in such a tight little bundle seems too cramped to me, like people standing shoulder to shoulder in an elevator, but some styles call for this, and doing so keeps ellipses from breaking across lines. You would never want to see two periods at the end of a line with the third stranded at the beginning of the next line.

Some styles even call for no spaces to either side of the ellipsis (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning…he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”) I would think this would leave the periods feeling as hemmed in as the characters in the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, but, as editors, we must comply with the style our clients specify.

Complicating matters further is that some styles call for the ellipsis (no matter how it’s formatted) to come before terminal punctuation if the omitted material comes before the end of the sentence (As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning . . . .). This practice makes it perfectly understandable why people could get the impression there is such a thing as a four-period ellipsis, but there is not, and understanding this makes it easier to adhere to whatever style you’re following.

One of the publishers for whom I proof favors the ellipsis at the end of promotional copy for the purposes of dramatic trailing off. The copy might read along these lines:

     The desperadoes thought their reign of terror would last forever,
but Johnny Gunhammer had other plans . . .

The problem is that sometimes the publisher, for no apparent reason, insists on using four periods in this construction. I suspect there might be the thought that if three periods are dramatic, four would be really dramatic. It’s enough to make you want to reach for a tommy gun.


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