Craft, Tips, Writing

How do you punctuate after a terminal ellipsis?

We tackled this question with the em dash in the last post, so this time let’s turn our attention to the terminal ellipsis. Like many writers, I use an ellipsis at the end of a line of dialogue to indicate the character’s voice trails off. Since this leaves the sentence unfinished, it seemed logical to me not to use any end punctuation. Like this: “I love you, but …”

As I read, I noted the terminal ellipsis used with and without punctuation. I’ve only recently begun to use punctuation with such an ellipsis, but I’m waffling. It just seems odd to punctuate an unfinished sentence.

The book that sparked my previous post also sparked this one. I thought I’d finally learned the rules about using punctuation after an ellipsis, but I saw something in that book, I’d never run across in reading. The author used a dialogue tag after the ellipsis, so she used a comma. Like this example:  “I love you, but …,” she said.

That looked odd to me, so I immediately started searching some of my work to see if I had omitted the comma in such instances. I discovered that apparently, I’ve never used a dialogue tag after a terminal ellipsis. Of course, I pulled books off my shelves and continued my search.

One of the writers I checked used a dialogue tag without a comma. Another didn’t use dialogue tags but did sometimes continue the sentence with an action after the trailing off speech, and in those instances, she did use a comma after the ellipsis.

What about the use of other punctuation with a terminal ellipsis? Some writers use the ellipsis to indicate trailing off speech with no punctuation. Some do use punctuation. One of the writers I checked, Anne Tyler, uses punctuation only sometimes—and I’m annoyed that I can’t figure out her rule for that!

To muddy the waters more, even writers who do use punctuation after the ellipsis don’t all agree on its placement—before or after the ellipsis. When I researched this in the past, I read a rule that said if the completed sentence would have been a statement, place a period before the ellipsis. If it would have been a question or an exclamation, place the appropriate punctuation mark after the ellipsis. (I don’t remember that they explained this difference.)

In my recent search, I found two authors who used punctuation with a terminal ellipsis when they used no dialogue tag. Anne Tyler, who used it only sometimes, placed the period before, but the question mark or exclamation point after the ellipsis. Joyce Carol Oates, who punctuated always, placed all marks before the ellipsis.

I know we should all be conservative in our use of the ellipsis, but when we do use it at the end of a line of dialogue, it seems the rule is up for grabs. We have:

“I love you, but …”

“I love you, but. …”

“I love you, but …,” she said.

“I love you, but …” she said.

“You love me, but …?”

“You love me, but … ?”

“You love me, but? …”

Okay, folks, surely you have an opinion on this one, so please share. Do you use an ellipsis to indicate trailing off in dialogue? Do you use punctuation with that? If so, where do you place that punctuation?

UPDATEIn the comment to this post, someone posted a link to Grammar Girl’s advice on punctuation with an ellipsis. She quoted The Chicago Manual of Style, but the ellipsis use she cited was mostly to indicate words left out of quoted material. When I googled for the CMOS take on the trailing off ellipsis in dialogue, I found this in their online Q&A: If you use the ellipsis merely to indicate a voice or thought trailing off, you would not use the period with it: “I’m not sure . . .” []

60 thoughts on “How do you punctuate after a terminal ellipsis?”

  1. Your post is, quite possibly, eternal Linda; you’ll be revieving comments long after we’re all gone.
    Why? Because not one of us, pro or amature, has the foggiest idea of the ‘correct’ way to use certain elements of English grammer.

    Rules state that if a quoted sentence is followed by ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, then we are to end quoted sentence with a comma placed within the quotation marks. However, USA and UK rules differ regarding placement of punctuation mark placement; both inside and outside quotation marks.
    Add the ellipsis into the equation, and all becomes tedious, confusing and quite frankly … a waste of time. (I would rather spend it producing quality story content)

    Imho, the reason famous authors do what they do is because they too got pi**ed off with the whole affair, and thus, used their individual logic to appraise when and when not to apply certain grammatical rules.
    Consistency in their application of idiosyncratic grammer usage, is how they get away with it; which is possibly the safest bet for the rest of us mortals too.


    1. Yes, Paul, this and the companion post are the most popular on this blog, but I haven’t had a new comment on either in quite some time. I thank you for yours. I agree the “rules” are confusing and most of us have created our own style. Consistency is usage is key. Of course, often our personal style conflicts with a publisher’s house style.


  2. If from the inflection in a speaker’s voice you can determine he meant for his incomplete expression to be a question (…?) or exclamation (…!), do you indicate same? Example: 1) Do you wish to…? 2) I do wish to…!


    1. Thank you for the comment, Lisa. It seems from your reference to “inflection” you’re asking about transcribing an interview or speech–something actually heard by the writer. In that case, you’re writing non-fiction, and I don’t know the rules for that. I write fiction, so no, I don’t use punctuation after an ellipsis. Other fiction writers do. In fiction, it’s a style choice.


  3. I’ve been searching for how to use grammar around an ellipsis, though more as a mid-sentence kind of thing. I am eternally frustrated at my software for capitalizing after an ellipsis when the sentence isn’t actually finished, so therefore there shouldn’t be a capital. However I was interested to see your post. In my view I agree that consistency is the most important thing, and most of the examples you posted looked like possible style choices. I can’t say that I agreed with the use of the punctuation in the second and the last example though. If an ellipsis is to be used as a pause or thought trailing off, then having end punctuation before the ellipsis makes the ellipsis totally redundant.


  4. Thank you for your comment, Sezyka. I agree with your point about end punctuation with a terminal ellipsis, which is why I never use it in my own writing. I think maybe the style has changed over the years. Also, it probably matters whether you’re writing literary or genre fiction.


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