The Most Important Thing to Learn in College ...

June 26, 2011

As odd or petty as it may seem, at some point in every semester, for every class I teach, I emphasize the correct way to write an ellipsis, with the admonition that it is the most important thing a college student needs to learn. Student reactions range from amusement to shock and disbelief when they realize I mean it. Colleagues' reactions are the same, until I explain why the ellipsis is important.

Undergraduates almost never use ellipses correctly in any essay they submit as part of a course requirement. Indeed, most undergraduates couldn't define an ellipsis, although a light comes on behind their eyes when a professor tells them it is the three periods written together, often seen in academic writing. Graduate-student writing usually includes at least one ellipsis, but it is often written incorrectly, and I think most professors don't bother to mark it as incorrect. Students are, understandably, too busy thinking about the content of their papers: if the thesis statement is strong, if the paper is well organized, if the source citations conform to the designated style, and so on.

Some students use the ellipsis as if it were a dash, instead of the appropriate usages, which are to indicate that words have been deliberately excluded from a source quote and to indicate a thought trailing off or a pause. Students often mistakenly insert two periods, or four or five, incorrectly spaced. The correct way to write an ellipsis in MLA style is to put a space after the last word in the first part of the material, then a period, a space, a period, a space, a period, a space, then the first word of the rest of the quote. Like this: word#.#.#.#word. There is a variation of this when the quoted material ends in a period, but for probably 90 percent of all academic usages, the above is correct.

In all the papers I read and grade during a semester, I usually find one student who uses the ellipsis correctly, according to the rules of MLA or Chicago style, the two citation methods I insist that students use for my classes. Invariably the student who does so is a top performer who comes to class prepared, does the work without complaining, engages in thought-provoking discussions, turns in assignments on time, and does not grumble about the workload. That does not mean that all students who use the ellipsis incorrectly are dolts or troublemakers—not so. But there is often a consistent, less-than-full effort apparent in their work.

So, why is learning to correctly write an ellipsis so important? This skill contributes to a good education because developing it demonstrates attention to detail, reaching for high standards, and building critical-thinking skills, all of which are important not only in academic writing but also as life skills.

Students who master use of the ellipsis show that even the smallest details matter. And chances are someone who pays attention to the small details also pays attention to the bigger issues. Often, it isn't a major, glaring error that loses an investor a million dollars in the stock market but rather the failure to read the fine print on a stock prospectus, for example. It isn't a sudden breakdown of the body that causes a major health crisis but rather the cumulative effects of eating 20 grams more of saturated fat every day than is prudent, or of taking the elevator instead of the stairs. Little things add up to big things.

Striving for excellence in writing, and in all things, is important. Failure to write an ellipsis correctly does not by itself mean a student's writing is worthless, but it is one indication that the student does not care about much beyond submitting the work. The consensus among educators is that today's students have a sense of entitlement, that they believe that showing up is good enough, and turning in all of the required assignments qualifies them for an "A," even if the work is substandard.

Perhaps there are reasons for this attitude, such as the high cost of tuition, which may encourage some students to feel that they are paying for the best grades and intend to get their money's worth, but those are not excuses for poor-quality work. An employer will not care that a college graduate has $50,000 worth of student loans to pay off, but only that the graduate can do the work. The college graduates who strive for excellence will be rewarded with promotions and higher pay by their employers.

Further, an ellipsis represents something left out. However, before writers decide what to leave out and what to put in, they must think about what point they are trying to make and what parts of a quote best support their argument. Of course, it is possible to leave out the parts that don't support their assertion, and that, too, is something that may be of value for a person who is not the most scrupulously honest. But that such situations can happen should make anyone who sees an ellipsis in academic writing think about the possibility that the quote in its entirety may not support the writer's argument. That, of course, is critical thinking.

What any particular professor believes is the single most important thing to learn in college probably depends on the discipline in which that professor works. A composition and rhetoric professor might argue for clear, coherent writing, while a math professor might argue for the value of accuracy, and a philosophy professor might argue for something more esoteric, such as knowing oneself or living an ethical life. While all of these educators hold valid points of view, there is one tiny thing that encompasses all of the above: correct use of the ellipse.

Franci Washburn is an associate professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Arizona.