Definition of Ellipsis

Ellipsis is the omission of a word or series of words. There are two slightly different definitions of ellipsis which are pertinent to literature. The first definition of ellipsis is the commonly used series of three dots, which can be place at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence or clause. These three dots can stand in for whole sections of text that are omitted that do not change the overall meaning. The dots can also indicate a mysterious or unfinished thought, a leading sentence, or a pause or silence. This punctuation is also referred to as a suspension point, points of ellipsis, periods of ellipsis, or in speech may be called, “dot-dot-dot.”

The other definition of ellipsis is a linguistically appropriate omission of words that are mutually understood and thus unnecessary. This type of ellipsis is usually used where the words omitted would be redundant. For example, a person might say, “I went to the mall on Monday, and she on Sunday.” A contextually identical sentence would be “I went to the mall on Monday, and she went to the mall on Sunday.” The words “to the mall” are omitted because they are understood from the context what the speaker is referring to.

The word ellipsis comes from the Greek word élleipsis, which means “omission” or “falling short.”

Common Examples of Ellipsis

The usage of three dots as an ellipsis is incredibly popular in texting and social media in this day and age. Many people use ellipses to signal confusion, disapproval, hesitation, or to show more is to come when writing in a chat-based application (indeed, some messaging applications use the image of three dots to show that the other person is typing). People also use ellipses in the previously defined way of showing that their thoughts are unfinished or that they are expecting a response from their interlocutors. Here are some examples of ellipsis that you might recognize or have used yourself:

  • So…what happened?
  • Um…I’m not sure that’s true.
  • …sure.
  • You went to the restaurant. And…?
  • But I thought we were meeting on Tuesday…?

It’s similar easy to think of examples of ellipsis in which words are omitted because they are unnecessary. Here are some more examples, with their linguistic terms (and words omitted in brackets):

  • Gapping: I ordered the linguini, and he [ordered] the lobster.
  • Stripping: I ordered the linguini, [I did] not [order] lobster.
  • Verb phrase ellipsis: I’ll order the linguini and you can [order the linguini], too.
  • Answer ellipsis: Who ordered the linguini? I did [order the linguini].
  • Sluicing: I’ll get something to drink, but I’m not sure what [I’ll get to drink].
  • Nominal ellipsis: I ordered two drinks, and Bill [ordered] one.

Significance of Ellipsis in Literature

Authors use ellipses for many reasons, similar to the diverse ways we use ellipses in written and spoken language. Authors generally use ellipsis examples in their works of literature to indicate an omission of unnecessary words or information. Authors also use examples of ellipsis to build tension when it seems as though a character or the narrator is leaving something unfinished, unsaid, or un-started. The popularity and usage of ellipsis has also changed over time; it used to be more common to find ellipses standing in for proper nouns or expletives. Journalists and academicians also use ellipses in their writing to indicate that a quote has been condensed for purposes of saving space. Poets may also use ellipses to indicate irony or make the reader consider a certain thought or line.

Examples of Ellipsis in Literature

Example #1

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:
“Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world.”
Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.
“Did he…peacefully?” she asked.
“Oh, quite peacefully, ma’am,” said Eliza. “You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.”
“And everything…?”
“Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.”

(“The Sisters” from Dubliners by James Joyce)

James Joyce was used ellipsis examples masterfully. In this excerpt, the ellipses indicate a certain propriety on the part of the narrator’s aunt. The aunt does not want to specifically refer to the death of another person, and thus just asks, “Did he…peacefully?” The obvious word omitted there is “die.” In the second ellipsis, the aunt is asking whether everything was in order, particularly with the Last Rites. Eliza understands what her omission is referring to, and assures her that Father O’Rourke did indeed give him Last Rites.

Example #2

“Come to lunch someday,” [Mr. McKee] suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.\
“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery House…Brook’n Bridge….”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morningTribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This is an extremely significant use of ellipsis from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. In this excerpt, the narrator Nick Carraway has left a party with another man, Mr. McKee. They agree to go to lunch as they are in the elevator, and Fitzgerald then separates that with an ellipsis and suddenly Nick is standing next to this man’s bed, while Mr. McKee is in his underwear. The leap is surprising, and seems to omit not redundant information, but instead a very key moment in the relationship between these two men. Many scholars have taken this incident, made implicit through the use of the ellipsis, that Nick Carraway is, in fact, gay.

Example #3

The vast flapping sheet flattened itself out, and each shove of the brush revealed fresh legs, hoops, horses, glistening reds and blues, beautifully smooth, until half the wall was covered with the advertisement of a circus; a hundred horsemen, twenty performing seals, lions, tigers…Craning forwards, for she was short-sighted, she read it out… “will visit this town,” she read.

(To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

Virginia Woolf uses an ellipsis in her novel To The Lighthouse in a very different way than F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this passage, the characters Mrs. Ramsay and Charles Tansley walk through town and notice details about what they see all around them. In this instance, Mrs. Ramsay has seen a poster for a traveling circus, and Charles Tansley feels slighted that she is more interested in this than in him. Woolf’s novel uses much stream-of-consciousness, and the ellipses indicate jumps in their consciousness. For example, there is a whole list of animals coming through with the circus, but the ellipsis cuts off the list, indicating that there are more animals but their brains have moved on. The second ellipsis indicates an omission of the first half of Mrs. Ramsay’s sentence.

Test Your Knowledge of Ellipsis

1. Which of the following statements is the correct ellipsis definition?
A. An addition of unnecessary information.
B. An omission of unnecessary information.
C. The use of three dots as a sign of laziness.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which part of the following sentence could be omitted as an example of ellipsis?

I went to the park yesterday and Joey went to the park also.

A. “I went”
B. “yesterday”
C. Second appearance of “to the park”

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following quote from James Joyce’s story, “The Sisters”:

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

“No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly…but there was something queer…there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion….”

What is the function of the ellipsis examples in this excerpt?
A. The speaker, Old Cotter, is hesitating and trying to come up with his opinion.
B. Old Cotter is omitting important information from his sentence.
C. The aunt keeps pausing while ladling out, and thus Old Cotter keeps pausing as well.

Answer to Question #3 Show