Wikipedia has a sentence in its article on ellipsis:

In reported speech, the ellipsis is sometimes used to represent an intentional silence, perhaps indicating irritation, dismay, shock or disgust. This usage is more common amongst younger, Internet-savvy generations.[citation needed]

I can find plenty of random internet articles making a similar statement, but is there an actual authoritative grammar source that says this is grammatically correct? Is it just something the "Internet-savvy generations" have invented?

Here is an example from a story:

She swallowed hard. "I'm afraid, Mark. Maybe if you might... talk to him?"

Here the ellipsis is indicating a verbal hesitation in the quote rather than the typical use of indicating an omission.

6 Answers 6


According to Grammar Girl, several style guides support the use of ellipses to indicate a pause (the relevant paragraph can be found under the header The E-mail Ellipsis).

She quotes from the Chicago Manual of Style that "Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty."

I would consider such style guides to be the kind of authoritative source you were looking for.


I'm far from convinced there's any justification for that Wikipedia claim about this usage being more common amongst younger, Internet-savvy generations, except in the sense that many young people today probably actually write more often than earlier generations anyway, because they "chat" using text on social network sites, and post on forums. So you could say every aspect of writing is more common among the younger generation. But so far as I know, it's always been a common device, so the supposed "Internet" connection is spurious.

As I write, I see Bjorn has just posted this same link to Grammar Girl, which cites CMOS if GG isn't authoritative enough for OP (I think she's fine in her own right, though I don't always endorse CMOS "recommendations").

It's worth noting that in general, CMOS is "prescriptive" - it's a style guide, which specifies a particular (hopefully consistent) set of guidelines. Grammar Girl is primarily "descriptive" of all different usages which do in fact occur, without necessarily promoting one over another.

  • 2
    CNMA (Clearly, Needs More Acronyms) :P
    – Matt Ball
    Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 22:28
  • If I hadn't seen Bjorn's answer pop up before I finished writing, I would have spelt out CMOS at least once. Anyway, I did at least write Grammar Girl in full for the last para, in case any readers might have forgotten the original reference by then. Sometimes it's a job to know whether you're helping or hindering clarity by using an acronym, but I used to do it a lot in technical writing just to keep the word count down. Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 22:35
  • Your answer was easy enough to read, and I appreciate brevity. It's just that, with my background, CMOS means something a bit different.
    – Matt Ball
    Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 22:38
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    I cannot tell a lie. I'd never heard of that American style guide before I came to ELU, and for weeks I always thought of the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor meaning whenever I saw CMOS written here. Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 22:42

The question asks whether this use of punctuational ellipsis is "grammatically correct".

However, this is not a question of grammar at all. It is rather an issue dealing with English writing, not with the English language per se. Writing is just technology; it's (real, spoken) language that has grammar. English punctuation, in particular, is not fixed by any agreed-upon rules, but rather is employed quite variously, as it always has been.

The fact that (real, actual spoken) English grammar is not taught in Anglophone schools has resulted in people using the word grammar to refer to just about anything they were supposed to learn at school about writing that they're unsure on -- including punctuation -- and also to use the term "grammatically correct" to refer to the imagined solution to their puzzlement about it.

I would suggest that, if a writer believes their reader(s) will understand their phonotactic intention in using an ellipsis, then the writer should go ahead and use it. "Correctness" is of no consequence here; effectiveness is.

For instance, I was puzzling the other day how to represent the intonation I wanted in the mind's ear of a reader, with a post that started out: Well ... I guess you could say that. I fussed with commas and other things and finally wound up using the ellipsis to indicate that the intonation slopes down for a while till the I is pronounced.

Note, this wasn't a pause; it was a longer-than-average well, with the final lateral resonant stretched out on a downward intonation contour. Any English speaker knows what that sounds like and what it means.

The problem is representing it effectively in writing, which is preferable to smoke signals for representing English intonation and rhythm, but only just.

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    Regardless of whether you consider the rules of punctuation to be part of "grammar", I think that there are rules of punctuation and that is what I was asking about. Perhaps the rules don't cover this particular situation, because it is - as you said - an artifact of speech, but that's what I'm trying to find out.
    – Lynn
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 1:16
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    You may indeed think there are such rules, but there really aren't any. Not that there aren't rules -- boy, are there ever rules! But they're largely incomplete and inconsistent, especially in English, so people make up their own rules and believe they are the rules, too. Check the link on punctuation above, repeated here. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 1:33
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    While I'll be the first to agree that there are gaps and inconsistencies in the "rules", I believe that to say there are no standard rules is a stretch. Perhaps in an academic sense that's true, but in a practical sense you can't just make up your own punctuation and expect to be taken seriously by, for instance, a book editor or an English professor. There are standards.
    – Lynn
    Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 1:44
  • There are indeed standards -- so many that one finds it hard to choose which to follow. But they're arbitrary and they're imposed by publishers, who have neither interest in, nor knowledge of, the language. As I tell my students in writing classes, if somebody is paying you to write or punctuate in a certain way, that's the job. If not, write the way you talk, and punctuate to try to represent the intonations you want. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 1:54

Larry Trask limits the use of ellipsis to showing 'that some material has been omitted from the middle of a direct quotation' and to showing 'that a sentence has been left unfinished'. There is thus the possibility that the ellipsis will be ambiguous if it is also used to indicate a pause, but I can see no other way of doing so.

  • Instead of the ellipsis a dash could be used, but (being a member of the "Internet-savvy generation" myself) I would use an ellipsis. Well, maybe with the exception of very formal texts (if the need to show a pause in a speech would even arise there).
    – Stephen
    Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 19:13
  • @Stephen: Trask limits the use of the dash to separating 'a strong interruption from the rest of the sentence'. I suppose a pause could be interpreted as a strong interruption, but I don't think that's what he had in mind. Commented Dec 4, 2011 at 19:34

What I see in style guides regarding the usage of the ellipsis for an omission is presented as three periods separated by spaces (. . .) for the ommission. The ellipsis without the spaces (...) for the pause.

  • 3
    Your answer would be better if it included a citation, or a link to one of the style guides you have consulted.
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 20:12

Any author is perfectly within her rights to tell the punctuation police to **** off.

These are matters of convention, not grammar, especially in fiction, and authors of fiction have license to approach conventions as they see fit.

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