This week and next week we’re going to address two types of punctuation that you’re likely to need in academic writing at some point: ellipsis points and a few types of dashes. I confess, I was going to make this just about dashes, and then the idea for the post title came to me, and I just had to include the dots too. In the interest of consistency and order, I’ll start with dots—that is, ellipsis points.
Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis? These: . . .
When to use them: They came up briefly last week, and the context covered then is the main context in which an ellipsis is going to be used in academic writing: for showing that content from a quotation was not included.
Ex.: “New York and Los Angeles are the two largest cities in the United States. . . . There was something else interesting my source said about them, but it wasn’t important enough to leave in, so I took it out and replaced it with those three dots over there.”
When not to use them: I (and others I know) have a bad habit of using ellipses in casual online real-time chat and text messages, usually when a period or semicolon would have been correct. If you share this habit of mine, keep it to the casual chat and don’t let it seep into your formal writing; it doesn’t belong there. You also might pick up a casual habit of using ellipses to suggest a pause or introduce a change in direction or tone. As effective as this technique can be in informal communication, it is also not an appropriate use for formal academic writing.
Ex.: I replaced it with those three dots over there . . . so you’ll never know what happened to it. Oh, and don’t do what I just did if you’re writing formal text.
Sometimes OK: If you’re writing dialogue (e.g., in fiction or a screenplay), you can use the dots to indicate a trailing off of thought or speech. This is fine in such a context, and in very specific instances of the same sort, you might be able to get away with it in academic writing (say, if you’re providing examples for your argument through creatively constructed dialogue). In general, though, the only common use for ellipses in academic writing is to represent omitted text in a quotation.
How to be an overachiever: Different style guides will have different formats, but if you want to be an ellipsis overachiever, here’s what you do. Space them apart, one space between each period, with a “nonbreaking space” between each. In Microsoft Word, you do this by hitting Opt-Space (on a Mac) or Alt-0-1-6-0 (in Windows, on the keypad, assuming you have one). Nonbreaking spaces look like spaces but act like characters, keeping the three periods all on the same line. There is a regular space before and after the ellipsis.
Oh, and as I mentioned last week, there might be four periods instead of three. This is the case if the first one is the period at the end of the preceding sentence. The other three periods are the ones that make up the ellipsis. If the preceding text isn’t a complete sentence, then use only three.
Whatchoo talkin’ about, Phyllis? This: -
When to use it: In certain prefixed and compound words, compound numbers, phrases being used as a complete adjective or adverb, et cetera, et cetera. If you’re in graduate school or later, you’ve probably seen your share of hyphens. I won’t linger in this paragraph.
Ex.: Candy was the most-admired twenty-something nurse-practitioner working in the Thirteen-Twenty building. I met her two-thirds of the way up the well-polished stairs and formed a half-smile upon seeing her sapphire-blue eyes.
When not to use it: There is only one major error in hyphen use that I routinely see while editing academic writing and a number of very, very minor ones. The major error has to do with using hyphens in place of an em dash. I’ll be covering em dashes next week.
Ex.: It can be painful - when you know what this is supposed to look like - to see hyphens used in this way.
The minor errors in hyphen use—very, very minor, as I said—simply have to do with hyphenating words that are “supposed to" be open or closed, or failing to hyphenate words that should be. This is a minor error because aside from the need to be consistent with your use throughout the document, it isn’t often anyone but sticklers like me will notice or even care if your hyphen use varies from a dictionary's dictates. “Supposed to” is in quotation marks because even that requirement isn’t solid or uniform across the styles that might govern your writing.
How to be an overachiever: If you really want to get the hyphens right, then get yourself the standard dictionary for your field (whether hard copy or an online subscription) and look up possibly hyphenated words whenever you use them to see how the dictionary does it. I use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, now in its 11th edition. The other source I use for resolving hyphenation questions is section 7.85 in the Chicago Manual of Style. If I were one to dogear my pages (or is that “dog-ear”? I’ll have to check . . . [note correct styling but informal use of ellipsis]), that section would be full of them by now.
This topic will be continued next week with the en dash and em dash.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.