I'm editing a paper and came across a sentence which uses an ellipsis to separate the main idea from a restatement as follows:

The suspicion that the butler committed the murder was just that... a suspicion.

My editing experience tells me that it would be better to use a colon:

The suspicion that the butler committed the murder was just that: a suspicion.

However, I cannot find any definitive justification for this, and would like to know if there is a rule or guideline for this case.

My impression is that the ellipsis is better suited for ideas and lists that trail off (such as a moment in literature that is meant to linger or fade), whereas the colon in this usage is intended to sharpen or focus the reader on the intended upcoming point.

Is the colon the correct choice for this usage? Note that this example is over-simplified and the context is in technical writing of an instructional nature.

A similar question has been asked, but does not consider ellipsis usage.

  • The colon is somewhat dated / formal / rather highfalutin (a dash being more usual in modern narratives). The dash 'seems more abrupt' (and hence I'd say signals a more abrupt, 'wake up, reader' reading) than an ellipsis. But I'm sure neither is incorrect. Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 19:36
  • @EdwinAshworth I probably should have mentioned that the example sentence I gave is simplified. The actual text is in the context of a more technical non-fiction piece.
    – JYelton
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 19:42
  • 2
    I would argue that ellipsis goes to spoken language whereas a colon goes to formal,written language.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 19:48
  • 2
    I personally prefer the colon. What follows the colon is a definition or clarification of what precedes it; that's one of its intended uses. If not a colon, I would use a dash (which is a kind of all-in-one punctuation mark). But if this is dialogue, the punctuation used doesn't really matter—since punctuation is never spoken in the first place. (Aside, possibly, some of its conventional representations.) Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 20:00

1 Answer 1


It comes down to style. The written word is merely an attempt to codify the spoken word.

In this case, they both convey a subtle difference in intent.

The ellipsis is a pause and wait for effect. The colon is a warning to the reader that the next idea is the response.

Both are acceptable.

The ellipsis is meant to convey a bit of drama. If it were an episode of CSI, the music would pump up at that moment and they'd give the answer.

If it's just a statement of thought process, go with the colon.

The detective couldn't help but feel uneasy being shown in by his lead suspect. But, the suspicion against the butler was just that: a suspicion.

The better question is colon vs semicolon vs comma here.

Again, I'd argue, style is style.

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