In the writing practises guides, it is usually mentioned that use of ellipsis is a bad practice.

But I have come across certain usages in professional writing.

To give an example;

In the novel Eat Pray Love by Liz Gilbert, following is usage;

On the other hand, he might just kiss me right now, tonight, right here by my door ... there's still a chance ... I mean we are pressed up against each other's bodies beneath this moonlight ... and of course, it would be a terrible mistake ... but it's still such a wonderful possibility that he might actually do it right now ... that he might just bend down ... and ...and

This is a sole instance, but she has used this as a part of the story itself. I think it is usually used to convey that, 'there is a lot to tell, but this is what I am telling'. But in this case, she is expressing her desires.

What are the ideas that are conveyed implicitly using an ellipsis? In what instances should they be used?

4 Answers 4


I think of an ellipsis as a moment in which emotion and feeling overwhelms narrative thought. That is how it is being used here, a pause for the narrator induced by internal sensation (desire) and imagination she cannot put into words.

Those can be more than desire, of course, it can be confusion, or pain, or grief, or horror, or love, or passion, or some other struggle between our emotional and sensory system asserting dominance over our rational system that can put things into words.

"No, don't ... don't ... don't die baby please don't die!"

On the other hand, I regard dashes -- (or an em dash) as an interruption or pause in a thought due to some other thought intruding. So it isn't being overwhelmed by emotion but being internally interrupted by a different rational insight. Or at times, stopping a sentence due to an outside interruption.

"That just isn't -- Oh, wait, I get it. I get it!"

  • Thank you so much for the answer. It was very insighful helps me a lot. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 15:06
  • @WhiteCloud If this answer was helpful for you, don't forget to select it as the best answer (if to you it is). Use the green check mark to do so. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 15:14
  • @Sora Tamashii 'emotion and feeling overwhelms narrative thought' this line was something I never thought on the lines of. I always thought in terms of 'consealing information' rather than 'consealing emotions and feeling'. That opened lot of thinking avenues for me for some other styles...that is why, my compliment...yes thanks I will choose this answer, was just waiting for some more input...thanks and regards... Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 16:50
  • Sirs, my apologies if that felt like, uncalled for. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 17:07
  • @WhiteCloud Not at all. Not everybody can post answers quickly, I wish the site didn't let posters select an answer for 3 days, just so the people willing to answer get a chance. Some of them may be on the other side of the world from you. Wait all you want; I've waited a week after putting up a question.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 19:40

When you are deciding if a form is good or bad, it is important to look at the context.

Are you writing a safety manual as part of a technical writing job? Then using one to imply there is more that should be obvious and has been left unsaid is probably 'not a great idea'.

Are you writing a novel, and attempting to convey different pacing and emotion in dialog between characters? Then they can be a wonderfully useful tool.

Contrary to what many will attempt to claim, the only proper way to use a grammatical tool is in a way that is understood by the reader...

That is to say, writing is a living construct that shifts and changes over time, and different tools or ideas may be used in different ways, or they may fall out of practice entirely. [I'm looking at you thorn, you sadly missed and misunderstood character. Your passing has left generations thinking Ye 'sounds old'...]

The two primary ways that I've observed this used in novels over the last several decades seems to boil down into one of two meanings.

  1. A pause, delay, non-reply, or other place holder of "some bit of non-trivial time is here" - "Have you seen my stapler? ... Wait, there it is" suggests to a reader that there was a longer period of time between the statements - The speaker found it shortly after more looking rather than noticing it at the same time they were saying stapler.

  2. As a placeholder for additional information that is implied, but not formally stated. If anyone really need more details on this one, then I think we can all agree what that says about them...

There has also been a long trending rise in how it is written. a. "like this . . . " - seems to be considered the 'textbook proper' form b. "like this ..." - seems to be growing in usage, and arguments against it fair as well as "two spaces after a period" does these days.

However I personally support the mindset that spacing implies duration. ie: ' ... ' and ' . . . ' and even ' . . . ' are viable constructs to use in the same novel, and would imply longer duration. [Note the jump from the use of 1 space to 3 spaces, rather than from 1 to 2 - To be useful these need to have a very clear visual difference, but going more than three or four levels deep with this concept is probably better served with a more direct phrasing in your text.]

c. "like this..." - without the leading space seems to imply it is type #2 from above, however this is somewhat inconsistently applied and has possibly been on the rise for usage as either over the last few decades.

There is no legal authority that oversees how writing and grammar are deployed in English. No one will cart you off to jail if you do something different or 'wrong'. You're really only using it wrong when readers are consistently coming away with a meaning very different than what you intended - When in doubt, check with a test reader from within your target audience. [It doesn't matter what a textbook or manual of style says is 'the right way' if your target readers don't know, understand, or agree with it.]

  • Thank you for the answer. At the end of a paragraph (4th and point 2) you have used ellipsis...She (liz) has also done that at few places. What does that indicate? In her book those paragraphs felt complete to me...it was not like she meant etc or something... Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 2:30

Ellipsis convey a pause.

In fact, the difference between a comma, period/full stop, ellipsis, and en-dash/em-dash is solely in the length being conveyed.

Let me adjust this to a music format:

  • A comma is a half-rest
  • A period is a full rest
  • An ellipsis is a full and a half rest
  • A dash is roughly two full rests

This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but I find more often than not, this is a good rule to follow. The one that breaks this rule the most tends to be the dash because it gets used for more than just indicating a pause in speech, but also interruptions (quarter-rest). With the others, it's a safe bet that is how they are being used.

The problem with using an ellipsis is this: people rarely pause for extended periods of time when speaking, so over-usage of the ellipsis comes off as unnatural the more it is used. Furthermore, a lot of people don't consider periods as serving the "pause" role that commas do, so it's very tempting to use an ellipsis whenever you need a pause that a comma just is not right for, resulting in texts that are LITTERED with the punctuation. Mind you, periods can't be used willynilly either, due to their primary grammatical function, but it just shows that you need to be careful no matter what pause punctuation you choose to use.

  • I often find that if I want to insert a pause without excessive punctuation, I stop the dialogue and insert a short line of stage business. This also breaks up the Wall Of Text and helps prevent Talking Heads In A Gray Fog Syndrome, because the stage business can add any of the senses, movement, interactions, descriptions, etc. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 19:42
  • 1
    The long pause is almost surely an N-dash or Em-dash, not a hyphen. Dashes are also used -- like this -- for parenthetical remarks, and may be represented by a pair of hyphens when it is not handy to type an actual dash. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 23:47
  • @DavidSiegel Actually good point. Hyphens aren't the same. I wrote this while tired, but will correct post-haste. Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 2:43
  • 1
    @LaurenIpsum Not all pauses need to be in the dialogue though. It depends on the perspective you are writing from. In a first-person perspective, you can actually have pauses depending on your narrator's perception of things around him/her. That said, that's more stylistic. For a more traditional writer, though, sometimes a pause should just be a pause. No flowery language to do the job. It's like how one of the most notable quotes of Shakespeare's comes from Macbeth: "He died." You don't need purple prose to express the simplest of concepts. You need a pause, put a pause. Just don't overdo. Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 2:51

An ellipsis indicates an omission. It can also be used to indicate a pause. In the passage quoted in the question, we are seeing a haracter's stream of consciousness, and each ellipsis indicates a little jump in the thought process, a sort of mental hiccup. This sort of thing can annoy the reader if it goes on too long or is overdone, but as with all stylistic choices, there is no hard rule.

An ellipsis can be used to indicate that only part of a passage, particularly in dialog, is being skipped.

"Let me tell you about my Uncle Alex, and how he got his nickname. He was workign in a bakery at the time, and ..."

When Alice when off on these long anecdotes about members of her family that no one else knew, Mary tended to lose track. But she realized that the end of the story was approaching now.

"... and that is how he came to be known as 'Alex the Greedy'.

"That is all vey well, Alice, but what are we goign to serve at our luncheon?"

Here the ellipses are used to indicate an entire passage that was omitted.

As to formatting, if a work is published, the publisher will have a house style on how an ellipsis should be handled, and one should normally not try to vary it. In particular, i would advise against using differently formatted ellipses to mean different things. Even if the formatting makes it though the publication process without error, most readers will miss such a detail.

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