Frequently Asked Question: …

Dear editor,

I would like to know your opinions on the ellipsis in dialogue.

Would you use:
“Well, gee…I don’t know?”
“Well, gee… I don’t know?”
“Well, gee … I don’t know?”
“Well, gee . . . I don’t know?”

Or some other variation?

I tried to find what CMS had to say about it and didn’t find anything authoritative.

Thanks for your question about the proper spacing of ellipses. In my view, only the second example (“gee… I don’t know”) would likely be seen as incorrect, because there should be the same amount of space on both sides. Otherwise it’s arguably only a matter of preference. The fourth example is my favorite and probably the one I’d advise. It’s the one that seems to appear in print most often.

But if you’re working in Word, you might want to use Word’s ellipsis symbol anyway, so that the dots don’t break between lines—that is, so you don’t end up with a dot or two at the end of one line and a dot or two at the beginning of the next. If you don’t want to use the symbol, you can safeguard against a line break in your ellipsis by typing:

gee <space> . <non-breaking space> . <non-breaking space> . <space> I don’t

You can key an nbsp (cool kids’ speak for “nonbreaking space”) using Ctrl+Shift+Space. If that seems like a hassle, you could make a macro for it. Personally, I don’t use a macro for this; instead, I do a Find & Replace if the ellipses are inconsistent within a piece of writing.

I’m glad you asked specifically about dialogue, because more complicated rules apply in other contexts. For fictional dialogue, you should use 3 dots, as we’ve been discussing; but, if you’re quoting someone (e.g., in informational text, such as a news story or literary criticism) and you omit the final part of a sentence but pick up the quotation at the next sentence (or later, as long as it’s in the same paragraph), use 4 dots. In addition, retain the original capitalizations at the beginning of sentences, or change the case in brackets.

E.g.: “[I]f you’re working in Word. . . . [and] you don’t want to use the . . . symbol”

Note that the 4 dots consist of a period (no space before) followed by ellipsis.

To go further into the subject: If you quote from 2 or more paragraphs, you have to preserve the same paragraph breaks as in the original . . . but you can get around that requirement by stopping and restarting the quotation. E.g.: Hart writes that the character “slammed into the remains of a glass shelving unit,” which “sank its jagged teeth into his doughy abdomen” (Hart, 232).

Clear as mud? 🙂

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