An Incomplete Thought

Sinead MacDughlas

I understand that language evolves. Grammar changes slightly over time, and even spellings can change. At least punctuation stays constant, right? Right? What do you mean, “No”?

I believe in my talent for telling a story. My grammar and spelling are, I would say, above average. It’s punctuation that seems intent on making me look like a hack. Edgar Allan Poe said, “The writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood….”

Did you catch that? I’m waiting for someone to point out the punctuation error I made in the previous paragraph. Anyone?

If you’d asked me a few days ago, I would have said, “That ellipsis is all wrong.” You’d think I’d know. I have an ongoing love affair with the ellipsis. (Don’t tell the semi-colon. I’m working up the strength to tell him we should just be occasional friends.) Most of my characters have a rude, nasty, and quite common habit of interrupting each other in dialogue. During an argument, characters seldom get to finish uttering their points. Even their thoughts are often interrupted by the world around them. I’ve never found the rest of society willing to come to a standstill, just so I can think my way through a situation. I can’t see why it should in my books, either.

With my upcoming novel in the beta-reading stage, the tricky subject of punctuation has come to the fore. After a bit of helpful advice from one of my readers, (regarding my acknowledged addiction to the semi-colon), I ran into some confusion. Her advice on the matter, while completely logical, was vastly different from advice I’d read in a popular writer’s blog. After an hour of searching the internet for definitive answers, I was more confused than ever. Bowing to an acknowledged authority, I purchased Webster’s New World Punctuation: Simplified and Applied. This book, published in 2006, has twisted my brain in knots.

Out of morbid curiosity, I began reading from the beginning. I mean, really, how can you possibly mistake the correct usage of the period? How little I knew.

When I saw a specific section for the use of a period with ellipses, I skimmed ahead. “When an ellipsis occurs at the end of a sentence expressing a statement or command, the three dots are joined by a fourth, which is the period….” Really? I was under the impression that ellipses are three dots…period. No exceptions. Consistency is the rule, right?

Being referred to Chapter 10 for more information on the correct use of the ellipsis, I skipped ahead again. A specific search of ellipses used at the end of sentences yielded me the following:

If the ellipsis is used to show words of a sentence omitted at the end of a quote, the sentence could be mistaken as complete, and it falls at the end of a sentence, four dots are used. Three are the ellipsis, the fourth is the period. If a question mark or exclamation point was used in the original quote, it is retained in place of the period to keep the tone of the quote.

Confused yet? I’ll make you up an example.

Original text: I was in such a hurry to get to work, I nearly left without my keys, lunch and purse!

Quoted partially: She told me, “I was in such a hurry to get to work, I nearly left without my keys…!”

Let’s see if the next rule confuses you, as much as it did me. The next rule I found stated that purposely, (as in obviously), incomplete quotes at the end of sentences are shown with an ellipsis. However, in this case the third dot in the ellipsis doubles as a period. Huh? What happened to consistency?

Well, let’s use that last quote again: “She told me, “I was in such a hurry to get to work…”

Now the book tells me, the rule of thumb is to determine whether the section preceding the ellipses is in the form of a complete sentence. If it is four dots are used. If it isn’t, only three dots form the ellipsis.

I wanted to know more about dialogue and trailing thoughts. Here I found another surprise. British and American punctuation differs drastically! What should I do? To my surprise I found that, as a Canadian student, I was taught British Standard for spelling and grammar, but American punctuation!

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll tell you the American rules for dialogue.

If the ellipsis is used to end a bit of dialogue, regular punctuation follows the ellipses. If the regular punctuation would have been a period, therefore, the ellipsis will be four dots within the quotation marks, instead of only three.

If the ellipsis is used to create suspense by leaving a sentence incomplete, it consists of only three dots.

Not surprisingly, I have yet to tackle my issues with the semi-colon. Perhaps, when I have, I’ll post what I’ve learned there as well…


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2 thoughts on “An Incomplete Thought

  1. Jenny Farmer

    It’s actually a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m happy that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Ressa

    LMAO! Too funny, and perfect. I don’t use the ellipsis to end a sentence, but in mid-sentence. That’s why I use just the three periods. And yes, the Canadian-American thing definitely confuses me, too. We’ll get it all figured out, and thanx for this post, very informative!


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