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Quoting Well, Part 3: Dot Dot Dot

Today, in the last of a series of posts about quoting, I tackle ellipsis—that is, the omission of words, phrases, or longer passages from quotations. The best scholarly writers take care when using ellipsis. First, they use it with restraint and honesty; second, they render it clearly by means of punctuation.

While the first concern is more important, readers here are not likely to need my advice on how not to join two unrelated quotations to manufacture a connection the author didn’t intend. Or how not to, say, quote a presidential candidate verbatim while omitting the context that would make it clear that he was quoting someone else at the time, in disagreement. Most writers know how to be honest; it’s merely a matter of choosing to do it.

When it comes to punctuating, however, even writers who choose to follow convention may be flummoxed by how to integrate ellipsis dots (. . .) into various kinds of sentences. It’s a topic better suited to a manual than a blog post, but rather than threaten you with “Quoting Well, Part 87: When Both Quote and Containing Sentence End in Question Marks,” I will just hit the basics here. My examples feature only in-line quotations (not block quotations). I follow The Chicago Manual of Style in using three dots with a space on either side and nonbreaking spaces within, rather than use the ellipsis character (…) preferred by some style guides. Chapter 13 of CMOS has plenty more detail for those of you who can’t get enough of this stuff.

First, some grist for our mill:

‘Hold up!’ said an elderly rabbit at the gap. ‘Sixpence for the privilege of passing by the private road!’ He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about. ‘Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!’ he remarked jeeringly, and was gone before they could think of a thoroughly satisfactory reply. Then they all started grumbling at each other. ‘How STUPID you are! Why didn’t you tell him- – - -’ ‘Well, why didn’t YOU say- – - -’ ‘You might have reminded him- – - -’ and so on, in the usual way; but, of course, it was then much too late, as is always the case.

Note: In quoting from this original, I may silently change British punctuation to American, change ALL CAPS to small caps, and render the multiple hyphens into em dashes—all permissible silent changes—but if there had been British spellings, I would have left them intact (see Part 2). Note, too, that there is no need for ellipsis dots at the very beginning or end of a quote if it forms a readable sentence (see Part 1).

In the most simple instance of cutting words from the original passage, no punctuation accompanies the ellipsis. Three dots do the trick:

—“He was bowled over . . . by the impatient and contemptuous Mole.”

— “But . . . it was then much too late.”

This simple form may be used even if whole sentences are omitted, as long as the quotation is a readable (grammatical) chunk on its own:

—“The impatient and contemptuous Mole . . . was gone before they could think of a thoroughly satisfactory reply.”

Often, however, other punctuation is required, especially when the quotation is taken from more than one sentence:

— “Then they all started grumbling at each other. . . . But of course, it was then much too late.”

In the example just above, the period before the ellipsis dots marks the end of a sentence in the quote, whether or not the original sentence ended at that point. The word But is capped to signal a new sentence (grammatically speaking), even though in the original it appears midsentence, lowercased. Such changes help smooth the reading of the truncated version; to this end, there is some flexibility in punctuating bits of quoted text. We could have punctuated the last quotation this way, instead:

—“Then they all started grumbling at each other . . . ; but of course, it was then much too late.”

This time the dot after other is not a period; it’s the first dot of the ellipsis. Thus the space before it. The semicolon is positioned as it was in the original. Commas, exclamation marks, question marks, and colons work the same way as the semicolon, placed before the ellipsis and closed up to the word if they appeared that way in the original, or placed after the ellipsis if not:

—“The rabbit said, ‘Hold up! . . . Sixpence for the privilege of passing . . . !’ He was bowled over in an instant.”

Note: Periods are treated differently. Whenever four dots are involved, the first one is closed up to the preceding word. Whether you perceive them as a period followed by an ellipsis or an ellipsis followed by a period, just close up the first one. It is pointless to overthink this.

If a sentence in a quotation trails off, incomplete, the ellipsis stands alone, without any ending punctuation. Note that the closing quotation mark comes immediately after the last dot in the ellipsis, without a space:

—Grahame hints at something when he writes, “but, of course, it was then . . .”

If the containing sentence requires its own internal or terminal punctuation, it falls after the quotation mark, lest it be taken as belonging to the quotation:

—What is Grahame hinting at when he writes, “but, of course, it was then . . .”?

—Grahame writes, “but, of course, it was then . . .”; only he would put it that way.

This last rule does not apply to commas, which (in US-style punctuation) always stay within the quotation marks:

—When Grahame writes, “but, of course, it was then . . . ,” we know what he means.

—When Grahame writes, “but, of course, . . .” we know what he means.

You may wonder why there are exceptions for commas and periods. I don’t know why. Perhaps these marks can get away with it because they are so small. In any case, by now you may be feeling a little punchy, as I am. If you are left with questions, feel free to post them below—or better, send them to CMOS. For now, all I have to say is “Onion-sauce! Onion-sauce!”

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Quotations from Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows (New York: Puffin Books, 2008), 2­­–3.

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Readers may send Carol questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing. Write to her at AskCarolSaller@gmail.com. (Please ask questions about Chicago style here.)

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