What Is Ellipsis?

Ellipsis derives from the Greek work élleipsis, meaning “to fall short” or “omission.” There are two different literary definitions of ellipsis. One refers to the punctuation mark that writers use to indicate that some of the original text is missing (for a quoted source) or that their thought is incomplete.

  • Fran Lebowitz said, “I place a high moral value on the way people behave. I find it repellent . . . to behave with anything other than courtesy. . . .”

(Note that when the ellipsis replaces words at the end of a sentence, you have four dots rather than three, one for the period. Also note that there are spaces between the dots.)

  • Hmm. I wonder what they’re doing back there. . .

The second use of ellipsis is the omission of words that can be understood within the context of the situation.

  • “Oh, he’s,” she said, looking at the empty hospital bed. “Yes, I’m afraid Mr. Sykes passed away this morning,” said the nurse.

The main purpose of ellipsis in literature is to replicate the way people really talk to each other. We do not speak in complete sentences, and dialogue that is completely free of ellipsis would sound stilted and unnatural.

Examples of Ellipsis

Ellipsis Example 1. “An Englishman . . . does things because they have been done before. An American. . . does things because they haven’t been done before.” — Mark Twain.

Ellipsis Example 2. I’m afraid to look. . .  Tell me when it’s over.

Ellipsis Example 3. “All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in single words. . . .” — Winston Churchill.

Ellipsis Example 4. “Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools [talk], because they have to say something.” — Plato. The omitted word, “talk,” is indicated by brackets.

Ellipsis Example 5. “Her hair was silver-tipped, her eyes large [were] and bright,” writes Muriel Spark in her novel, The Takeover.
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