Sometimes when you quote you may want to skip parts of the quotation. To show where you’ve left out words, phrases, or entire lines, you can use an ellipsis (the plural is ellipses).
An ellipsis consists of three spaced periods (. . .). Popular publications often leave out the spaces between the dots (…).
Let’s say we want to quote from the following passage from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden (1911):
One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body.
First of all, if you’re quoting just a brief snippet, you don’t have to use an ellipsis before or after:
Burnett believes that a negative mindset is “as bad for one as poison.”
In other words, we assume that the quotation is part of a longer sentence.
By comparison, if you’re skipping over a passage you will need an ellipsis:
Burnett argues that science increasingly recognized the healing powers of the mind: “One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts . . . [are] as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison.”
Notice that we’ve also used square brackets to make the sentence work. It used to be more common to put the ellipsis in brackets too, but that is no longer required.
Finally, here’s one more rule for prose quotations: if the ellipsis comes after a complete sentence there will actually be four dots (since the preceding sentence ends with a period):
Burnett writes, “One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries. . . . To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body.”
You’ll notice that the period here replaces the original dash, and in general you can remove extra punctuation (commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes) around an ellipsis.
If you’re quoting poetry, many of the same rules apply for using ellipses. Here’s an example:
In the poem “Holy Thursday,” William Blake argues that “where-e’er the sun does shine . . . Babe [infant] can never hunger there” (13, 15).
Even though we’ve left out a whole line of poetry, a single ellipsis will do the trick.
On the other hand, if you skip at least a full line in a poetry block quotation, you might indicate this by means of a full line of dots:
In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wonders about the point of building walls:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No one has seen them [the gaps] made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there. (1-4, 10-11)
As always, make sure that the ellipsis is not too intrusive. The reader should be able to make the leap from one passage to another without getting lost en route.
Interruptions and trailing thoughts
Some writers like to use an ellipsis to show a pause in someone’s speech, to suggest that a thought is unfinished, or to lend an air of mystery and drama:
“Our anniversary date is . . . what again?”
“I wish I could tell you the truth, but . . .”
And they lived happily ever after . . .
This use of the ellipsis is uncommon in academic writing, where it can come across as melodramatic.