The Ellipsis Reloaded

Occasionally, I go back through some of my past work (Regarding Avalon, written in 2010??) just to see what I’ve learned. One thing I’ve noticed is that I used to use the ellipsis an awful lot; these days, not so much, though still quite a bit. The other thing I’ve noticed that I have formatted it differently in every book I’ve written.

When I started out, I did what most people do, I just typed in three dots, each one surrounded by spaces.

This is . . . three dots surrounded by spaces

Looks okay, though you have to remember to use hard spaces instead of regular spaces, otherwise the dots might get split across lines when the text reflows. That wasn’t the main problem however; what I dislike about this using this is that the spaces between the dots can grow and shrink, depending on how the paragraph is justified. You could end up with something that looks a bit like this:

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The great ellipsis battle of 2016

I don’t think a single piece of punctuation has caused me so much trouble as the ellipsis. It’s not that I don’t understand it (though since discovering the internet, I have probably developed an annoying tendency to overuse it); it’s formatting the bloody thing that is proving to be a ginormous pain in the butt.

Okay, so what can you use an ellipsis for?

Well, in formal writing, the ellipsis is used to show that words or phrases have been missed out of a quotation:


George was a fine man. He was a strong man, a pillar of his community and a stalwart of the local fire service. At weekends he enjoyed golf, scuba diving and wearing his wife’s clothes.


George was a fine man … At weekends he enjoyed golf, scuba diving and wearing his wife’s clothes.

Simple enough, but note that the sentences remaining must carry the same meaning and they also have to make grammatical sense.

This isn’t very common in creative writing; here ellipses are more often used to show dialogue trailing off.

But George, those are my …

Or a pause for thought.

George, how would you like it if I just started wearing your … your underpants!

Or to denote uncertainty or a distraction.

George, the vicar is here to see … For the love of God! George!

All pretty straightforward, unlike George’s life choices. So what’s the problem. Well, for an autistickler like me, it’s how to format them. On the internet, there are loads of opinions to choose from. The common choice is to use three dots separated by spaces. A bit like this:

George, have you seen my . . . ?

This doesn’t look too bad on the page, but it all depends on the the justification. Most eBooks need to stretch the text around to justify it properly, and that can lead to big unsightly spaces between the dots.

George, have you seen my     .      .     .    ?

Not good, but not a big deal, I thought. I’ll just define my own ellipse character that uses a thin space between the dots. Not a complete fix, but it’s better than nothing.

One small snag though: To make sure that the dots are not broken across lines, I need a non-breaking thin space. While there is a unicode definition for a non-breaking thin space (character U+202F, I think), it doesn’t appear to be standard across all fonts. So when your readers change the ebook reader font to something other than Times Roman, those carefully crafted spaces between the dots all disappear.

All modern fonts define their own ellipse character (some better than others), so in the end, I decided to stick with that. That only left the problem of the spaces on either side of the ellipse. Again, the justification of the text often leads to this sort of nonsense.

George, the vicar is here to see     …    For the love of God! George!

So it was time for a bit more research.

As it turns out, there seems to have been a little bit of a change of thinking in how ellipses are formatted, and I think it’s due to writers having to cope with flowing text on web pages. I’ve read a couple of books recently that dump the first space before the ellipsis and leave the second one. In this regard, the ellipsis behaves like any other bit of punctuation: it sits flush against the word to its left, and has a space after it.

George, the vicar is here to see…    For the love of God! George!

Without the space before the ellipsis, the dodgy justification is not so pronounced. And the best part is that I don’t have to remember to hit the non-breaking space in front of it.