Lesson Category: Punctuation
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.
The word “brackets” can refer to either the square variety [like this] or to parentheses (like this). Some sticklers think that only square brackets deserve the name, but there’s no need to be so restrictive. Here we review the main uses of square brackets.
Inserting words in a quotation
Square brackets are used to insert extra words and explanations in a quotation:
The novel Post Captain opens with Captain Jack Aubrey looking both heroic and uncertain of his own future in the navy: “Captain Aubrey was standing by the aftermost larboard carronade [the last cannon on the left side of the ship], with a completely abstracted, non-committal look upon his face.”
The bank sent them a letter stating, “This letter verifies that the customer [me] has an account with us.”
Things get complicated when you need to change the quotation to integrate it properly. Sometimes it’s necessary to alter the capitalization of a word. Let’s say you want to quote the following passage:
“As art historians, we often miss the point that Kitsch’s paintings fetched so much money in post–World War I Germany because inflation was rampant.”
However, if you chop off the first part of the sentence, your quote will look like this:
As Edward Jones observes, “[W]e often miss the point that Kitsch’s paintings fetched so much money in post–World War I Germany because inflation was rampant.”
The reason is that if your signal phrase (your own words) ends with a comma, and the quotation is a complete sentence, the latter needs to be capitalized. You could avoid using square brackets if you change your signal phrase:
Edward Jones observes that “we often …”
This time the signal phrase and the quote form a complete sentence together, which is why capitalization is unnecessary.
Some writers go all out—changing pronouns and adding words—but square brackets should be used as little as possible. If you’re using two or more sets of brackets, there is probably a more effective way of integrating the quotation.
Pointing out an error in a quotation
Sometimes when you’re quoting a passage the author has made an error—most often a simple spelling mistake. To indicate that you’ve transcribed the quotation faithfully, and that this is not your error, you can add sic in square brackets. In Latin, sic means so or thus, and is short for sic erat scriptum (it was written thus).
In the following example, the writer points out that in the quotation the name of the yacht is written incorrectly (it should be Granma):
Daniel Martin writes, “A pivotal moment in the mythical life of Che Guevara occurred when he sailed to Cuba in the yacht Grandma [sic]” (3).
Notice that sic does not have to be in italics.
While it’s satisfying to point out an error, adding sic can seem rather pretentious, and should be kept to a minimum.
Brackets inside parentheses
If you’re using brackets inside parentheses, you can make them square:
Dear parenthesis, I am an angular square bracket with a passion for punctuation. If you share my feelings, please get in touch (my number is  286-9901).
This is not a hard and fast rule though. For instance, in the sciences, some formulas that use parentheses may need to go inside square brackets. An example would be algebra equations [(a + 3) ÷ 2 = 6].
Introduction to Punctuation
Many of us have a conflicted attitude towards punctuation. On social media, we tend to enjoy it when friends share humorous pictures of punctuation mistakes. But when it comes to actually studying the rules of grammar, we can be a bit lazy. Intuitively we feel that we know the rules, but most of us end up guessing where a comma or a semi-colon should go. It’s time to change that.
One of the most common punctuation mistakes is to form the plural with an apostrophe. This is sometimes called the “grocer’s apostrophe,” since it seems to happen all too frequently in supermarkets:
Would you have spotted that this should read “bananas”? It’s good to avoid such basic errors, but if we want to improve more substantially, we really need to study grammar.
The key to learning punctuation is to understand how the parts of a sentence work together. Take the following sentence:
If you’ve watched enough TV detective series, then you’ll get the impression that the most dangerous places in the world are Oxford, small islands in the Caribbean, and pretty much anywhere in the British countryside.
Why the commas? The first one is to separate the dependent clause (starting with “if”) from the independent clause (starting with “then”). The remaining commas separate the items in a list. People often argue about whether the last one is necessary, given that we’ve already used “and.” The added comma is known as the Oxford comma: it is increasingly preferred, as it provides more clarity.
The point, however, is that knowing something about sentence structure makes punctuation much easier.
The Breathing Theory of Punctuation
What you want to avoid, by contrast, is adding punctuation marks such as commas and semi-colons whenever it sounds like there is a pause. Writing is not like swimming, where you take regular breaths between strokes. It’s quite possible to have an entire sentence without punctuation, other than the initial capital and the final period. Although our pauses and our punctuation marks will often line up, the breathing theory of punctuation is imprecise and best avoided.
There is a real beauty to punctuation. Once you see how the different parts of a sentence work together, you’ll feel more at ease, even with some of the trickier punctuation marks. You might even take pride in being able to use a semi-colon or a dash effectively.