A small hill on which to die

Many of us have standards, small hills — such as not squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle or adding milk to the cup first when pouring tea. While not on the same scale as never robbing a bank or cheating on your hair dresser, our little scruples can provoke a visceral emotional reaction when we experience them being contravened. Mine has to do with ellipses. The ellipsis is the series of dots in a run of text that shows an omission of words or letters. It can also mean an unfinished thought, slight pause or period of silence. The name comes from the Greek meaning “omission” or “to leave out.”

Like most scruples, there is no fixed agreement on what constitutes an ellipsis or when it should be used. Many digital fonts contain a prefabricated ellipsis, a runty little character “…”, which does not evoke the expansive presence necessary to describe absence. Some typographic authorities instruct that ellipses should be made using periods (full stops). Depending on the authority, there should no space “ ... ” (too crampy) or a standard space “ . . . ” (too spacy) between the stops. I, however, think full stops with thin spaces “ . . . ” is just right.

Is there any value in small hills? Not eating before the host at a meal? Never reading a book in the shop before you buy it? Opening a door for a companion? Announcing your name when making a phone call? Accumulate too many scruples and you will be seen as fussy and inflexible. Shirk scruples too much and you will be seen as unscrupulous. Perhaps the real value of small hills is that they give us practice for large ones. Like exercise, they keep us fit for the big hurdles in life when what we do or not do, matters much. Does it matter whether a “…”, a “ ... ”, a “ . . . ” or a “ . . . ” is used to denote an ellipsis? Not really. I will grit my teeth and do whatever the client insists on, knowing it may be enough that we have had a skirmish on a small hill.

Here is my guide for handling the ellipsis my way.

Oh, and paragraph returns should not break an ellipsis over two lines.

Next week we will discuss at length why the use of doubled hyphens “--” instead of an emdash “—” makes my teeth grind ever so slightly.


See Spot run. See Jane fall. “Stop, Spot, stop!” cried Dick.

Legend: ts = thin space ws = word space

When the omission comes in the middle of a sentence.

See . . . run. [See ts. ts. ts. tsrun.]

When the omission comes at the beginning of a sentence.

. . . Spot run. [ws. ts. ts. tsSpot run.]

When the omission includes the end of a sentence.

See Spot. . . . See Jane fall. [See Spot. ts. ts. ts.wsSee Jane fall.]

When the omission comes at the end of a sentence and removes complete sentences.

See Spot run. . . . “Stop, Spot, stop!” cried Dick. [See Spot run. ts. ts. ts. ws Stop, Spot, stop!” cried Dick.]

When the omission denotes an unfinished thought.

“Stop, Spot . . .” cried Dick. [“Stop, Spot ts. ts. ts.” cried Dick.]

When the omission denotes a silent pause or period of silence.

“Poor Jane . . . See Jane cry.” [”Poor Jane ts. ts. ts.wsSee Jane cry.”]


Book Typography, by Michael Mitchell and Susan Wightman, Libanus Press, 2005

The Complete Manual of Typographical Style 2nd Edition, by James Felicity, Peachpit Press, 2003

Book Typography, by Ari Rafaeli, Oak Knoll Press, 2005

The Elements of Typographical Style, version 2.5 by Robert Bringhurst, Hartley and Marks, 2002

What are Ellipsis Points?

Ellipsis on Wikipedia