An ellipsis (uh-LIP-suhs) is an omission of words or events that allows readers to fill the gaps in the sentence or narrative. The word ellipsis comes from the Greek élleipsis, meaning “to leave out” or “fall short.”
Types of Ellipses
There are two primary categories of ellipses: marked and unmarked.
A marked ellipsis is shown by the use of three periods in succession (…), sometimes with spaces around or in between the periods depending on the style writers prefer.
Marked ellipses generally indicate a pause or a trailing thought, and literary writers use this punctuation in dialogue to imitate how people speak. An example would be “I was hoping…we could be more than friends.” Here, the punctuation indicates hesitance as the speaker asks a question they aren’t sure will receive the desired response.
An unfinished thought, on the other hand, may look as follows: “How is my brother doing after the accident, doctor? Is he conscious yet, or is he…?” In this example, the unfinished thought omits but implies the possibility that the speaker’s brother may be unconscious or worse.
An unmarked ellipsis omits without using any indicative punctuation. Consider the following examples:
- “I bought the shoes, and Noor the dress.” In this sentence, the word bought is omitted.
- “Alex bought the shoes, not the dress.” The phrase she didn’t buy is omitted from this example—replaced simply with not—though it’s clear to the reader that Alex didn’t purchase a dress while shopping.
- “Yuri brought three pencils for the test, and Ricardo brought two.” In this example, pencils for the test is excluded from the second clause, as context clues imply this fact.
- “Hey Jamie, when does class start?” “At three.” In this instance, Jamie doesn’t say The test starts because it’s clear what he’s addressing in his response.
Why Writers Use Ellipses
Writers use ellipses to mirror the way people actually speak, imitating halting or trailing speech; advance the storyline by leaving out events or literary elements of the narrative; and convey emotion in a relatable way. Overall, when properly used, ellipses provide realistic details, emotional effects, and/or a sense that the author trusts the reader to fill in what was left out.
The Iceberg Theory
The trust writers place in readers can be best exemplified by the iceberg theory. Pioneered by American writer Ernest Hemingway, the iceberg theory is a writing technique that emphasizes minimalism, focusing solely on the narrative rather than the theme behind the story. Hemingway was originally a journalist, so he took that field’s focus on facts and incorporated the philosophy into his literary works. He trusted that a reader could understand a story’s underlying theme without needing him to explicitly state it.
Ellipses in Film and TV
Narrative ellipses are also prevalent in movies and TV, most often shown through a time jump.
The opening to Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey transitions from the bone as a primitive tool to the futuristic space station and spacecraft. This implies the astronomical evolution of technology over the period of humanity’s existence. Another example is in TV series such as Parks and Recreation, where the penultimate season finale ends with a three-year jump into the future.
Chronological jumps can be present in subtler ways. There’s an implied time jump in most of the Harry Potter films, as they barely showing the summers that pass between the school years. These jumps are designed so the viewer barely registers them and instead focuses on the important parts of the narrative instead. Regardless of how subtle or evident these ellipses appear, the primary function of this device is to further the storyline along.
Examples of Ellipses in Literature
1. James Joyce, “The Sisters” from Dubliners
In this excerpt, Father Flynn has just died of a stroke. The protagonist’s aunt and one of the priest’s sisters, Eliza, are discussing his death during the wake.
My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:
“Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world.”
Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.
“Did he…peacefully?” she asked.
“Oh, quite peacefully, ma’am,” said Eliza. “You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.” [bolded for emphasis]
Out of respect toward the deceased priest and his family, the protagonist’s aunt trails off, omitting the word die from her question. Eliza understands her meaning and responds reassuringly.
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
This passage is an example of how ellipses are used in modern literature. In this scene, narrator Nick Carraway leaves a party with Mr. McKee, who invites him to lunch:
“Come to lunch someday,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
Instead of following this conversation with a lunch scene, Fitzgerald uses the ellipsis to omit what happened between the two men after leaving the party. The untold events are left to the reader to imagine, though many have seen the omission as implying a sexual relationship.
3. Langston Hughes, “Dream Variations”
Hughes’s poem imagines a life without racial discrimination. The ending concludes his fantasies in a trailing fashion as a result of ellipses:
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.
The effect of this device is a wistful, dreamlike effect as the poem concludes.
Further Resources on Ellipses
Anne Toner provides an in-depth study of ellipses in literature in Ellipsis in English Literature.
Shalom Lappin and Elabbas Benmamoun delve deeper into the topic of ellipses, providing a theoretical perspective in their study Fragments: Studies in Ellipsis and Gapping.