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An Ellipsis (Unicode character U+2026 and HTML symbol …) is a

series of dots – typically three – that usually indicates an intentional omission of a word, sentence …

as Wikipedia states in its article and the following example demonstrates:

example of a ellipsis usage

Furthermore, as you might know and according to practicaltypography.com, the el­lip­sis char­ac­ter should be used (first example sentence in the next image)

instead of typ­ing three pe­ri­ods in a row (second example sentence) – which puts the dots too close to­gether – or three pe­ri­ods with spaces in be­tween (third example sentence) – which puts the dots too far apart.

ellipsis vs. sequence of three dots and sequence of three dots separated by spaces

I wonder now why is there a special character to represent a mortised sequence of dots when the adjustment of the spacing between each of the periods could also be achieved by appropriate kerning instead?

Note: The sans-serif typeface Lato was used in the examples.

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    The obvious answer is that it has a distinct semantic meaning, there does however seem to be some debate on its use that I wasn't aware of till now… – Cai Mar 31 '16 at 20:53
  • Yes you are right the semantic is important in this case; its like the usage of the Unicode's special characters for roman numerals ... :) – elegent Mar 31 '16 at 21:03
  • @ZachSaucier: I don’t really understand why this is opinion based. "it's convenient to do so" could be the answer for almost every question ;) – elegent Mar 31 '16 at 21:20
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    A random but quite defendable guess: the ellipsis is used to indicate truncation or elision. Not only in typography, but in computer software as well. Now if a text string is two characters too long to display in its entirety, you'd need to add three characters ... (Also: "kerning" is not always an option.) – usr2564301 Mar 31 '16 at 21:56
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    "The sans-serif typeface Arial was used in the examples." Um ... I'm not sure that's true. It's not Arial. – Andrew Leach Apr 4 '16 at 14:46
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A Distinct Semantic Meaning

The ellipsis (…) is a punctuation mark. It is as distinct as any other punctuation mark and, as does any other punctuation mark, has its own meaning and uses. An ellipsis is not three periods. It looks like three periods and is more often than not, written as three periods—but it is not three periods.

Depending on the context it can have different meanings, but usually represents an omission. Other meanings may include an implied pause or silence.

The confusion over it's similarity to three periods isn't helped by the fact that in informal writing it is almost always written as three periods. In blogs, social media, text messages, emails, chat rooms and instant messages you will often see strings of periods ending a sentence.....

Usage & Guidelines

There seems to be a lot of debate on the correct usage of an ellipsis. Various style guides recommend different ways of forming an ellipsis. For example:

The Chicago Manual of Style and The Modern Language Association Style Manual recommend using three periods separated by non-breaking spaces, and surrounding spaces if not at the end of a sentence. The MLA Style Manual however differs from the Chicago Manual of Style in usage guidelines. If omitting material after the end of a sentence, MLA recommends including ellipsis (composed of periods and spaces) after the final period of the sentence (resulting in four periods), whereas the Chicago Manual of Style would only include the final period.

Various other style guides recommend other usages and there seems to be no consensus.

Opinion

There are valid arguments for both using an ellipsis character and using periods separated by spaces. The article Dot Dot Dot . . . at creativepro.com puts forward an interesting argument:

Its problem is that it’s too small, constrained by the physics of font design to be only one em wide. […] If the idea of ellipsis points is to indicate an omission, they have to open a space wide enough to visually communicate a gap, […] a one em–wide opening in the text just doesn’t cut it

Visual VS Technical VS Semantic

The arguments seem to me to be visual vs technical vs semantic. Visually, periods separated by non-breaking spaces emphasise the omission or pause. Technically, periods separated by regular spaces may get broken across lines and an ellipsis character can get lost with translating character encodings. Semantically, the ellipsis has a distinct meaning from a group of spaces and periods.

In my opinion, using periods and spaces is nonsense. There is a distinct character for an ellipsis, so use it. A period means the end of a sentence, it is meaningless to end a sentence three or four times. Using periods (separated by spaces or not) just because it looks like an ellipsis is like using a 0 (numeral zero) as an O (capital O). But that's just my opinion.

In short—The character exists because it IS a distinct character and the benefits of using it are… debatable.

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could also be achieved by appropriate kerning instead?

Typesetting conventions have been developed for over 500 years of letterpress printing. Using one character instead of manually kerning 3 metal characters each time an ellipses was used made a lot of sense. It was simply practical and also the most simple way to achieve a consistent and visually pleasing result.

And the same arguments are true today. In the text flow of digital documents, individual dots for an ellipses are calling for trouble (e.g. unwanted line breaks) and when documents are copied as plained you can’t copy your manual kerning. And even if you could, you wouldn’t know if the kerning is consistent and who would want to kern all that anyway.

  • Thank you very much for your interesting arguments! Pointing out the historical development is very smart. As you mentioned line breaks could give troubles, but is it even possible to specify that characters inside a morpheme shouldn’t be divided because of a line break? – elegent Apr 12 '16 at 18:09

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