# Why does an ellipsis have three dots?

It might be an odd question, but I'm trying to comprehend why do we use three dots in an ellipsis. Wouldn't two dots suffice? An ellipsis serves a dual purpose, it can be used to either denote an unfinished thought or omitted words, but why is it written using three dots? Have we any meaning assigned to two, horizontally aligned dots?

In some programming languages two dots are used to specify ranges, i.e. all integer numbers between 1 and 9 (including both) may be described as 1..9, which is perfectly distinguishable from 1.9, as in "one point nine".

I have stumbled upon a question on this topic and the answer suggests that Oxford English Dictionary uses double dots instead of triple dots because it shortens the contents considerably. If that is the case, why do we even bother with triple dots?

• One extra dot can be a typo. When you get the third, then you have a reasonable assurance it was intentional. Nov 15, 2014 at 0:14
• That is some explanation, but hardly convincing. Applying this logic would undermine double letter spelling. I mean, why spelling and not spellling? Nov 15, 2014 at 0:17
• you can't pronounce spellling. The ellipsis is a typographic symbol, not a word or part of a word. Their requirements are quite different. The main need for an ellipsis is to not be missed when reading Nov 15, 2014 at 0:22
• While I agree that punctuation has a different role in a language than spelling, I am still not convinced. I will refer to my previous example, 1.9 is quite distinguishable from 1..9, do we really need to emphasize with 1...9? Nov 15, 2014 at 0:30
• In fact, there's also a four-dot ellipsis used in abridged quotations to indicate that an entire sentence has been skipped. And some languages (Japanese & Chinese for certain; perhaps others) use a six-dot ellipsis. Nov 15, 2014 at 0:34

The best answer as to why we use a three-dot ellipsis can be found in the book The Motivated Sign (Iconicity in Language and Literature), but allow me to explain briefly.

ellipsis is derived from the Greek elleipein essentially meaning "to fall short" or "leave behind." The Viking language of Old Norse was one of the first known languages to use the ellipses, albeit without the specific "..." notation. In Old Norse, these ellipses were literally omissions of infinitive phrases and non-action verbs.

It wasn't until 1588 that the three-dot ellipses first appeared in print in Maurice Kyffin's translation of Andria by Terence. It is unlikely we will ever know why three dots were chosen over any other possible symbol or series of symbols. However, this precedence combined with arbitrary rule probably has brought us to today's modern usage guidelines of the ellipsis.

• The link regarding first appearance is interesting, though, because the picture/figure it references shows various versions of ellipses within the same document, including dashes for dots. Nov 15, 2014 at 7:03
• Old Norse does not "use the ellipses". You can see quite clearly in the example sentences that there is no particular symbol used, nor even any symbol at all. The words are just dropped. This is ellipsis, which is something else entirely: It is the omission of unnecessary words, which is a very, very common feature of language. Nov 15, 2014 at 19:29

Well, the example you provide for programming languages is not completely correct.

Most modern programming languages use the 3 dot ellipsis for specifying variable numbers of parameters in a function. The two dot ellipsis IS used in some older languages to specify a range, but now it is less common. Some differentiate, using the 3 dot ellipsis to omit the last value, and the 2 dot ellipsis to include it. In system design, the two dot ellipsis is used to specify ranges.

Coming back to your question regarding why we DON'T use the two dot ellipsis, it seems to be more of a standard. Wikipedia says that 18th and 19th century writers used the ellipsis to indicate a blank to be filled like this:

Jan was born on . . . Street in Warsaw.

Where the ellipsis denoted missing data. With this in mind, I guess it could be said that 3 dots took up more space, allowing larger words to be written in the space. Not sure, but maybe it was something of the sort.

So, it seems that the 3 dot ellipsis is used, since the ellipsis originated in that form (perhaps due to practical reasons such as the one I mentioned), and because it is maintained as a standard in that form.

An Ellipse, in mathematics, has three co-linear points of importance; a center and, on either side, a focus. So, in an Ellipse, we have three dots in a row [focus, center, focus]...hence the name ellipsis.

• Welcome to EL&U. That's all good and well, but ellipsis did not derive from ellipse, so it seems a coincidence at best. Can you present a reference or authority which asserts this connection? I also encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for additional guidance. Nov 15, 2016 at 16:09