Most students recognize ellipses when the triple dots are used to cover omitted text in a quotation. But what happens when ellipses are used outside an academic or nonfiction context and represent omitted verbal text, as in faltering or trailing-away speech in fiction dialogue? In this case they’re often referred to as suspension points, and they come with their own set of rules and considerations.
Suspension points are a common way to show that a speaker’s voice is trailing off or that they’re faltering as they speak. It’s less a matter of words that are left out as words that are unspoken or delayed.
Example A: John looked around the room and sighed. “I thought . . . I mean, I didn’t think it would turn out this way.”
Example B: “I wish . . .” He looked around the room and sighed.
Notice, though, the difference when a speaker is cut off or stops abruptly. In these cases, the break is indicated with an em dash:
Example C: “All right, class, next week?” The bell rang, and the rest of the assignment was lost in chair scraping and rising conversation.
Example D: “I wish I?”
“You’re always wishing!”
In both cases, the abrupt end in the dialogue line shows an interruption rather than dialogue that falters.
The general use is simple enough; however, suspension points can get tricky when they conflict with the punctuation normally required in dialogue. For example, The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that where a comma would be required at the end of a set of suspension points, e.g. right before a dialogue tag, use the suspension points, the comma, and the quotation marks in that order:
Example E: “I don’t really know . . . I . . .,” she said.
Does that look odd? Though it’s correct, many writers find it a messy, even clunky look and avoid it by reworking the dialogue line:
Example E2 (rewritten): “I don’t really know,” she said. “I . . .”
Example E3 (rewritten): “I don’t really know . . .” She frowned. “I . . .”
Note that in Example E3, “frowned” is an action, not a true dialogue tag, so it’s a separate sentence and does not require a comma before the end of the quotation marks as in Example E.
Periods, though, are a different story. Although in some cases ellipses used to signify omissions may require a fourth period, don’t let your knowledge of ellipses fool you into adding the extra period here. Where faltering or trailing-off speech are concerned, there’s no need to include a fourth period before or after a set of suspension points?not even when the suspension points represent a pause at the end of a complete sentence.
Example F (incorrect): “I don’t really know. . . .I’m too tired to think.”
Example F (correct): “I don’t really know . . . I’m too tired to think.”
Next week we’ll look at a few other ways to use punctuation to convey a certain feel in dialogue. But before we move on from suspension points, a final note on spacing: Be aware that if your style guide prefers suspension points conveyed by spaced dots (. . .) rather than the single-character triple-dot glyph that comes with Word (?), you may need to substitute nonbreaking for regular spaces to avoid the suspension points breaking over a line.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.