Let's say we wanted to omit the first four words of the following quotation.

"I think that somehow, we learn who we really are and then live with that decision." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Generally speaking, it is recommended that one should not include an ellipsis at the beginning of a quotation.

"we learn who we really are and then live with that decision." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Should the above be capitalized to follow standard rules of capitalization, or left as is in order to retain its accuracy?

  • 4
    I think that somehow you've lost a lot of "accuracy" already by dropping the first four words. Bad example, because you wouldn't lose anything by discarding my first four words. But Roosevelt's actual statement implies a somewhat hesitant suggestion as to how we experience our self-identity. The shortened version makes it seem more like a folksy aphorism advising people how to live happier lives, which isn't at all what she meant. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 0:18
  • I apologize for the poor example. You are indeed correct that removing the first four words in my example does remove some of the original richness of the quotation. +1 on your comment. There are, however, many times when I have wanted to nondestructively remove an initial clause in, for instance, a compound sentence, and found myself at a loss as to how to capitalize the remaining quotation. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 0:25
  • ty. I honestly don't think there would be an absolute rule for the general case. If it's important that you stick to some particular style guide (Chicago Manual of Style, or whatever), I'd have thought they'd cover it. Personally I would always transcribe exactly what was in the original. Unless I paraphrase a bit to enhance the clarity of something out of context, in which case I put the paraphrasing [in square brackets]. But it would be a bit odd to cite this one as "[We] learn who..." :) Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 0:33

4 Answers 4


In its section on "Quotations and Dialogue: Permissible changes to punctuation, capitalization, and spelling" [Section 13.7, if you have a subscription] the Chicago Manual of Style says:

The initial letter may be changed to a capital or a lowercase letter.

It expands further:

To suit this requirement, the first word in a quoted passage must often be adjusted to conform to the surrounding text. In most types of works, this adjustment may be done silently... In some types of works, however, it may be obligatory to indicate the change by bracketing the initial quoted letter; for examples of this practice, appropriate to legal writing and some types of textual commentary, see 13.16.


"We learn who we really are and then live with that decision." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt


"[W]e learn who we really are and then live with that decision." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

The latter would be used in a work where more rigor was required.

Addendum: The Chicago Manual raises a valid point that others responding to this question have echoed:

Authors drawing on the work of others to illustrate their arguments should first decide whether direct quotation or paraphrase will be more effective.

  • Great answer, thank you so much! I'll award you the bounty tomorrow, assuming no better answers have emerged. Thanks again! =) Accepted and up-voted. Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 1:48
  • 1
    +1 Nice answer. Like Sue in her answer, I tend to casually use the initial ellipsis because that seems more intuitive/sensible to me, but the OP was looking for the "rule" in formal, official writing. The bracketed capital letter is the institutionally endorsed, high-register way to [snip] something. I'll probably refer to this answer next time I write a paper!
    – alcas
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 3:01
  • @NathanArthur: Glad to help. But yes, we'll see what our friends from the UK and EU have to say...
    – Gnawme
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 7:25

I don't take my wisdom about proper usage from law book sites. When I do any incomplete quoting, I use ellipses, no matter which part of the quote I snipped. In your example, I would do this: "...we learn who we really are and then live with that decision."

Or, a more modern approach: "[snip]we learn who we really are and then live with that decision." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Absolutely no initial capitalization if you removed the original first word from the sentence(s).


  • Great answer! Could you possibly include some backing for your answer? Major names that use this approach, perhaps? Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 0:40
  • Sorry, Nathan, nothing comes to mind at this moment. (Here's how I roll: I am passionate about language, I read a lot, and I have my own style, which I can and will defend. Said defense will come more from my gut than from "because this or that expert said so." For me language is living and dynamic and its job is to communicate. Clearly and hopefully with style and pizazz. Just sayin'...) Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 7:55
  • Understandable. =) However, I'm really looking for what is "correct," or at least widely accepted, so it would be really nice to have a reference to some sort of authority on the topic. It's very likely that I will accept your answer if such a reference is provided. Commented Dec 5, 2011 at 18:39
  • It's largely a matter of style - but if I had to choose between yours and CMOS, give me your ellipses any day. Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 22:48
  • @NathanArthur: Kent Law and a few other random websites I found by searching for "ellipses in quotations" state that you should expressly not use ellipses at the beginning of a quote where there's an omission. Nonetheless, as a preference of style I like Sue's answer and would do it that way myself :)
    – Lynn
    Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 4:26

The claims of conventional punctuation and accuracy are indeed in conflict here. The nearest Larry Trask gets to dealing with this is in saying:

The first word of a direct quotation, repeating someone else’s words, is always capitalized if the quotation is a complete sentence . . . But there is no capital letter if the quotation is not a complete sentence.

I think Gnawme has the right answer with the use of square brackets round the initial letter. If for any reason you want to avoid that, a workaround is usually possible, as in:

As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘. . . we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.’

But if you’re doing that, you might as well, as FF suggests, quote the whole thing, beginning with ‘I think that somehow . . .’


Think of it this way. Omitting a part of a quote, it may not always convey the same thought, being devoid of context, being semantically incomplete or different from the original, or for any other similar reason.

Use of the ellipsis warns the discerning reader of these possibilities. You could not have 'already made up your mind' not to use an ellipsis. :)

The idea that there should be no ellipsis at the beginning could mean that you may not omit the initial part of a quote.

That said, I do not think capitalization is an issue any more.

  • That is indeed a legitimate concern. Perhaps the ethical side of this question deserves more thought than I had first anticipated. Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 19:18
  • Thanks for empathizing with me. I did not mean ethical as much as semantic implications, though. :)
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 7:26

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