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An ellipsis is a literary device that’s used to omit parts of a sentence or phrase.

An ellipsis takes the form of three dots, “…”, and can be used in a wide variety of situations. A writer might choose to use it when they want a character’s dialogue to cut off, forcing other characters and the reader to fill in the blanks. One might also use it when they want to cut off a description, for dramatic effect, to create the feeling of mystery and more. They are a convenient device that can help to change the tone of a particular part of a novel, short story, play, or even a poem.

Ellipsis Pronunciation: ee-lip-sus

Ellipsis definition and examples


Definition of Ellipsis 

The word “ellipses” comes from the Greek “élleipsis” meaning “omission” or “falling short.” As noted above, ellipses can be used for different reasons. Some others include the fact that they can save time and appear as a stylistic element. Often, literary scholars relate the ellipsis back to the work of Ernest Hemingway and his Iceberg Theory. This is also referred to as the “theory of omission.” It argues that a writer should allow the bulk of a story to go unsaid, left for the reader to uncover for themselves. The most famous example is found in the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” 

Today, the use of ellipses is extremely popular in modern communications. In texting and emails, ellipses are used to denote pauses in one’s speech. For example, “Oh…I’m not sure about that.” This can make one’s written words read more as the spoken words would sound. Ellipses can add drama to one’s ententes and ensure that the person who is being communicated with understands exactly how the text/emailer feels.


Examples of Ellipsis in Literature 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

There are a few examples of ellipses in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Some of the best are found in his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Consider the following excerpt from Chapter 2 in which Nick leaves with Mr. McKee and agrees to go to lunch. Then, with the appearance of ellipses, the jumps forward, and Nick is standing next to McKee’s bed with the latter in his underwear. 

“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 Horse…Brook’n Bridge…” 

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station […]

This is a surprising and character-defining leap that forces readers to make their own assumptions about the relationship between the two men. Why is Nick there, and what happened during the omitted time? 

There is another good example in Chapter 6 of the novel. Here are the lines: 

His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…

 … One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. 

Ellipses end the first paragraph and begin the next, suggesting that time has passed. These lines define Gatsby in an otherworldly and strange way, suggesting there is more to him than meets the eye. These lines also correspond with the first time he met Daisy, linking the two together. 


To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf contains a few wonderful examples of ellipses in its lines. This novel is one of the writer’s best-known. It uses Woolf’s famed stream of consciousness style of writing. This means that the reader is allowed into the character’s minds with their thoughts streaming easily and freely from their minds to the page. This allows for a more honest, although sometimes overwhelming, understanding of who a character is. It can be raw and quite emotional. Here are a few lines from the novel: 

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. 

Woolf chose to use ellipses in these lines to cut the stream of thoughts short. The list of animals in the circus is cut off, suggesting that the thoughts are cut off, replaced by new ones. The character lost interest in the circus poster and has moved onto something else. 


Why Do Writers Use Ellipsis? 

Writers use ellipses for a wide variety of reasons. It allows them to leave out unneeded words, alludes to something that happened without stating it directly (such as in the first example from The Great Gatsby), and make a passage easier to read (due to the removal of unnecessary details). They are also used to make sure the reader knows the writer has left out something or that there is more to something than was included. This can be beneficial when a quote is used or when someone is repeating the words of another in the dialogue. That being said, using ellipses in a quote can sometimes distort or change its meaning. This might affect the reader’s reception of it. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information
  • Anacoluthon: occurs when the writer changes the expected grammatical structure of a sentence and interrupts it with another sentence.
  • Cumulative Sentence: a sentence that begins with an independent clause and then adds subordinate clauses.
  • End-Stopped Line: a pause that occurs at the end of a line of poetry. It might conclude a phrase or sentence.
  • Hyperbaton: a figure of speech in which the order of words in a sentence or line are rearranged.


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