Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

A confession and some lovely words

with 4 comments

hhuntitledI’m so ashamed. The butler claims he told me ages ago (he didn’t) and is now sulking in the pantry. I considered pretending that I knew all along but my reader, Gladys (who seems to be spending a lot of time with the butler lately), would never forgive me for lying. So I have to ‘fess up.

It’s all to do with ellipsis. Now, ellipsis (plural: ellipses) can mean two things:

  • a word or words that are left out (in speech or writing)
  • the punctuation mark of three dots … that indicates the position of the missing words.

images5D26IYSEWho could possibly get this wrong? Oh, that would me.

Because, apparently (she said, trying to suggest that it’s been a well-kept secret until now), when using the three dots as a punctuation mark, there has to be a space either side of them. (I *ahem* sort of thought there only had to be a space after the end of the final dot.)

Here’s a great example from the story The Sisters in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners:

No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly … but there was something queer … there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion …

(Not read Dubliners yet? Grab a copy – if only for the final genius story, The Dead.)


The ellipsis punctuation mark is also used in informal writing to indicate a trailing off of thought …

It can be used in this way both at the end of the sentence as above, or in the middle of a sentence:

I used to think I was good at this punctuation lark … oh, well, onwards and upwards.

education-project-class-a-schools-in-victorian-timesnowadays-in-the-uk-11-638Drama and hesitation

The ellipsis can also be used to build up dramatic effect:

I can’t believe it … you mean to say … he was the murderer?

Or hesitation:

Really? It doesn’t seem possible  … he seemed to … well, I’ll wait and see.

Note the correct use of a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark in all these examples. *makes note to self while standing in corner with dunce’s cap on*

In mitigation

What can I do to make up for all this? Oh, I know, share some lovely words with you.

61kXxVeed+L__SX323_BO1,204,203,200_These are stolen from an article by Robert Macfarlane, author of the bestselling book, Landmarks, a celebration of the relationship between words and landscapes:

  • burra: a sheltered spot, tucked away out of the wind , where certain flowers can grow (used in Oxfordshire, UK)
  • kesh: a makeshift ramp or bridge over a stream or marsh (Northern Ireland)
  • wicker: a goldfinch (Cheshire, UK)
  • dimmity or dimpsey: twilight (Devon, UK)
  • hazeling: of a spring morning, warm and damp, good for sowing seed (Hertfordshire, UK)
  • smeuse: the gap in the base of a hedgerow made by the regular passage of a small animal (Sussex, UK)
  • crizzle: the freezing of open water (Northamptonshire, UK)
  • zawn: a wave-smashed chasm in a cliff (Cornwall, UK)
  • ammil: the gleaming film of ice that cases twigs and blades of grass when a freeze follows a thaw (Devon, UK)

 And finally

Note that some style guides say that as well as a space either side of the ellipsis punctuation mark, there should be a space between each dot. But, hey, let’s not go mad; that would be a kesh too far.


4 Responses

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  1. Do you know, I’d like to leap to your defence? (Well, actually I wouldn’t manage it because I’ve been digging the garden all afternoon.)
    I use those three dots fairly often in my poetry to indicate a trailing off of thought or a hesitancy. For that reason I’ve been alert to how this punctuation mark is employed by other poets and I’ve been aware that some plunge straight in without a gap. I don’t myself …
    Looking in my shelves however I’ve quickly found examples of the straight-in usage in poems by Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, Basil Bunting and others. Of course I also came across the three dots with a space either side, and they were more … but you seem to have some Big Poetry Cheeses on your side.
    You might like to let the butler know that the under gardener wishes to take issue with him…

    John Looker

    19/03/2016 at 6:24 pm

    • Hi, John

      Ah, thank you, I feel slightly vindicated now. I was trying (with limited time) to find some refutation of this rule from a respectable grammar source so I could quote it as an alternative view, but all the ‘authorities’ seem to agree there should be a space either side. The butler is adamant too. But I’ll point him in the direction of your comment when he’s finished polishing the silver. 🙂


      19/03/2016 at 6:56 pm

  2. I had heard of the book; now, thanks to your posting of these lovely words, I know I must get it!

    Maggie Manning

    03/07/2016 at 1:55 am

    • Hi, Maggie – lovely to hear from you. Hope you’re well. Thanks for dropping by. 🙂


      03/07/2016 at 8:55 am

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