How to Build a Better Ellipsis with Adobe InDesign

by | Oct 28, 2013

I had been working on a book with editor Sharon Goldinger of PeopleSpeak. This fiction author is fond of dropping ellipses into his dialogue. Consequently there were hundreds of them in the 300-page book.

Some authors will just type three periods where they want an ellipsis, so it looks like this…

Others, like this author, had learned how to insert a special ellipsis character into their manuscripts, which looks like this…

They look pretty different, don’t they? There were so many on the page, the ellipsis characters were creating an unpleasant pattern that distracted from reading the book. Something had to be done.

But first, have you ever asked yourself…

What Exactly Is an Ellipsis?

Let’s let Wikipedia take it from here:

Ellipsis (plural ellipses; from the Ancient Greek: ἔλλειψις, élleipsis, “omission” or “falling short”) is a series of dots that usually indicate an intentional omission of a word, sentence or whole section from the original text being quoted…. Ellipses can also be used to indicate an unfinished thought or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence (aposiopesis)…. The most common form of an ellipsis is a row of three periods or full stops (. . .) or a precomposed triple-dot glyph (…). … The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that an ellipsis be formed by typing three periods, each with a space on both sides.

How to Create an Ellipsis Character

Okay, so that’s pretty clear. If you have a Macintosh it’s quite easy to access the special ellipsis character, which contains all three dots together as one.

On Macintosh, press Option then semicolon (;) to generate a fixed ellipsis character like this …

On Windows, you can hold down the Alt key and press 0-1-3-3 on your numeric keypad, or use the Character Map application to insert the ellipsis where you need it.

Anyway, back the the book I was working on.

We ran into so many different situations trying to get all these punctuation marks right, Sharon sat down and wrote me a “cheat sheet” of guidelines about using ellipses. I’m happy to pass it along:

5 Varieties of Ellipsis Use

  1. When 4 dots are used between two complete sentences or at the end of a quote, they should look like a period followed by 3 equally spaced dots:
    • (Between sentences)
      in the extreme. . . . It has a rough
    • (End of quote)
      drawing hither the commerce of the world. . . .”
  2. When 3 dots are used in the middle of a sentence, with or without other punctuation, they should be equally spaced dots:
    • (No other punctuation)
      in some capacious harbor . . . where the natural advantages
    • (Other punctuation after ellipsis)
      around the cape . . . , we ‘squared away’
    • (Other punctuation before ellipsis)
      pecks of dried fruit, . . . very acceptable

Book Designer Confessions

Now, I’ll confess right here that I’m not a fan of the ellipsis character found in some of our type fonts. And I don’t always use it when I’m typesetting books. There are three reasons for this:

  1. There is no set width or spacing for the ellipsis character, and each designer is free to create whatever kind of ellipsis they like.
  2. There are times you need to introduce a space or another punctuation character to the ellipsis, which can create some unsightly typography.
  3. There are other times when you’d like to have more control of the spacing of the ellipsis, particularly when combined with other punctuation, and not be at the mercy of the decision made by the type designer.

You can see how designs for ellipses vary widely in this illustration. The top line is set in 12 point Adobe Minion Pro, the bottom in 12 point Gabriola:

Ellipsis 1

Here’s how the ellipsis character in the Cambria font differs from the Chicago Manual recommendation of spaces and periods:

Ellipsis 2

But with the tools built into Adobe InDesign, we can craft our own custom ellipsis that will conform to the exact look we want to achieve in typesetting.

Adobe InDesignThe first task is to make sure we’ve constructed the ellipsis properly.

Parts of the Flexible Ellipsis

If the fixed ellipsis character is inflexible, we want to make ours flexible enough to meet our needs.

InDesign comes equipped with lots of kinds of word spaces, and this capability is critical to creating an ellipsis that behaves properly.

We never want the ellipsis to separate from the word it’s attached to, and we don’t want any breaks within the ellipsis, leaving some dots on one line and others on the next. That’s a no-no.

So it makes sense to replace the regular space characters with InDesign’s nonbreaking spaces. These make sure the ellipsis won’t break away from the word it’s attached to, and won’t break within itself.

Specifically, we’re going to use the Nonbreaking Space (Fixed Width). This will allow us to create our ellipsis with the exact spacing we need, without the worry that the spaces will flex in size as InDesign adjusts regular word spaces to create a justified line. Here’s what it looks like:

New Ellipsis

Notice that I left a regular, breaking space at the end of this string. That’s where I want it to break if it winds up at the end of a line.

Now that I have a string made up of individual characters, there’s one more thing I can to do customize it.

Customizing the Ellipsis

In the second illustration above, you can see that the spacing of a fixed ellipsis is quite different from the one assembled from characters. You might think the fixed one is too tight, with too little space between the dots.

But you might also think the assembled one is too loose. We can fix that.

Here is the original ellipsis we just made, and one with a tracking -60. Although subtle, the change is very evident, especially when repeated many times on one page:

Ellipsis 4

Character stylesWith InDesign we can capture this tracking setting as a Character Style.

This allows us to use the Character Style (“Ellipsis tracking -60”) in a “Find/Change” operation to replace all the fixed ellipses in the document with this custom-made, hand-crafted ellipsis that will space exactly as we want and break according to the rules:

Book design is made up of an accumulation of details like this, and the tools available to us now allow a level of sophistication and automation that makes smoother, more elegant, and ultimately more readable pages possible.


Although ebooks may be our future, book typography continues to develop in interesting ways. Print books that display this type of typographic work seem like they may be around for quite a while.

Book Design Templates

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Zach Roth

    I too have just come into contact with my first author with an intense predilection for the ellipsis. This article was exactly what I needed, super thorough, super easy. Thanks a ton.

  2. Ian Anderson

    Quite scary. Reading through my createspace proof today I realised I use far too many exclamation points and have been replacing 3/4 of them with yup, you got it, ellipses! (oops there’s another one)

    Have to admit, even after capturing the screen shot, pasting into, zooming in and placing them adjacent to one another… the two examples look the same to me too (Using Chrome also)…

    This is in depth stuff though which I appreciate, you’re making all of our books better Joel! (damn, another one)

  3. Maggie Dana

    Thanks, Joel. Your have supplied my typesetter’s geeky need for the day. I can now sleep . . . contentedly.

  4. Robert Anton

    Before I start, allow me to emphasize that I’m no grammarian by any stretch, nor do I claim any special expertise when it comes to writing good fiction. The ellipsis is, however, in my opinion, of such significance that whenever I see it mentioned in a forum where my own experiences might be inserted into the discussion, it’s hard not to participate. So here goes, for better or worse.

    To begin, worth noting is that there’s no such thing as an expert grammarian, per se, with respect to the English language. The rules for proper usage of the ellipsis serve as a perfect example of this assertion. After writing five novels which involved intricate and subtle dialogues among multitudes of characters all speaking simultaneously, one had better get a handle on how to use the ellipsis, or almost certainly risk annoying readers who stopped reading because they simply couldn’t understand what the characters were saying, or how the author intended them to “sound”.

    After a careful study of the ellipsis and what the so-called experts had to say via a string of different grammar books, I came to the conclusion that the rules for using the ellipsis are more common sense and less a methodical step-by-step process of writing etiquette. I found that with rare exceptions, no two grammar books, no two editors, publishers, agents or writers will agree on the precise form and format of how and when to use the ellipsis. Pick up any five fiction novels and the chances are you’ll find three (or more) examples of where the ellipses were used differently in each case. I did just that and was amazed by how frequent and blatant were the discrepancies among various books.

    Just as one person alone cannot be a communist, neither does any one grammarian have the final say on how best to use the ellipsis. If you can find two or more who agree on precise usage, however, that might serve as an excellent place to start. After that, it’s largely up to you to refine the process and make it work. Keep in mind that because writing styles vary so widely and wildly, few hard and fast rules or definitions can apply to all circumstances or every writing technique, especially in fiction.

    An example of this truism is how POV (point-of-view) has changed over the years. Back in the day, the rules were very strict as to “who” was telling your story, and from what specific viewpoint the narrative was based. Regardless of how well written a story might be, new authors who lost themselves or their readers amid the confusion of overlapping POV’s that “broke” the rules, rarely made it past anyone’s desk. While still important, the rules for POV have largely relaxed and the only real requirement today is that an author maintain clarity as to what’s happening, to whom it’s being done, and who’s doing it.

    In similar fashion, the ellipsis is also a highly flexible, but equally under-used, misunderstood or unappreciated “tool”. As a brief aside, substitution of the M-dash for anything other than its prescribed use as an abrupt interjection or afterthought is rapidly disappearing — at least I hope so. I rarely state anything as an emphatic rule, but never (and I do mean never) use a punctuation mark that can be interpreted as having two separate meanings, where a reader cannot be sure what the author intends. For example, if I use the M-dash in its more traditional role, and then try to use it to also indicate a pause in dialogue, how is a reader to know (without thinking about it) how the dash is meant to be interpreted in any given situation? Readers don’t want to stop and interpret punctuation that deviates too far from what they’re used to. I don’t blame them. There is something to be said for standardization, and this is indeed one of those instances.

    Briefly touched upon in the article addressed by this commentary is the notion of combining other punctuation marks with the ellipsis. And how this is invariably problematic. It not only looks ugly and awkward, but is entirely unnecessary. The only exceptions (in my opinion) are adding a period or (maybe) a question mark to the end of an ellipsis and only then, doing so judiciously. A well written manuscript, filled with dialogue, can and should avoid the need to ever combine commas, exclamation marks or any other grammatical devices with an ellipsis. The risk of confusing a reader and suspending their belief while they pause to “decipher” what you’ve written, is not worth the effort. If your sentences look “odd” or jumbled, regardless of how correct the punctuation might be, you’ll likely lose your readers sooner rather than later.

    All that said, one aspect in particular is clearly evident: among the number of professionally published fiction novels I reviewed, the ellipsis was always used in a consistent manner, albeit slightly differently in almost every book. This is an important point that cannot be overemphasized. It is critical that from first page to last, in any given book, that the ellipsis be used in the exact same way every time without exception. This sounds a bit confusing so I’ll try to clarify what I mean. This is also why I shy away from discussing the ellipsis, because it is such a simple little device, yet truly requires pages of explanations. Not because it’s use is complicated, but because it can be used in so many different and interesting ways. Particularly if your dialogue is interesting. The more intense and powerful your dialogue, the more vital a role the ellipsis can play. “Play” being the perfect description for how an ellipsis can lovingly be employed.

    Ask yourself how many nuances are there in human speech patterns? Like a billion? And the poor ellipsis is often tasked with carrying the heavy loads, so to speak. Again, the one factor that rang true in every book I ever read, with respect to the ellipsis, is that a reader could rely on it being used the same way each and every time — in any one book. More precisely, this means when a speaker is interrupted by another person, the ellipsis is always used the same way to indicate that specific type of interruption. If a speaker pauses, either completely or only momentarily, the ellipsis is again used in identical fashion, without variance, such that a reader develops an instinctive trust in the exact meaning intended by the author, but more importantly, the exact meaning expressed by the speaker, in this case a character in a fiction novel. Authors who violate this dictum do so at their own literary peril.

    Thus we see that while the use of the ellipsis under all occasions can be somewhat arbitrary, depending on what “expert” is your personal guru, what is not acceptable is a weak, inconsistent hit or miss use of the ellipsis. For example, it’s presence in a sentence where a reader interprets the meaning a certain way in one instance, only to be confounded when the ellipsis is used differently under a similar or identical circumstance. While professional editors have got this down to a science, I’m concerned that less savvy writers new to fiction will find the ellipsis problematic. A shame because no dynamic dialogue can exist without it. Or without its being used to great effect.

    It should come as no surprise then, that while I found Joel Friedlander’s article (on the mechanical aesthetics of how an ellipsis should appear on the page) to be of great academic interest, I couldn’t help but ponder how much more important it is that, regardless of how the thing looks, if it’s wrong, it’s just wrong. And more often than not, it’s likely to be used wrong. Or poorly. Or inappropriately or unnecessarily. But by God, it sure looks great on the page! Sorry, but the inherent humor did not escape me. Nor did I try to avoid it.

    I appreciate the opportunity to bloviate about my favorite subject, the proper care and feeding of the ellipsis, and unfortunately space (and human decency) do not allow for a more complete explanation of how to get the most bang for your dialogue buck, simply by recognizing the ellipsis for what it is: probably the singlemost useful editing tool an author has when it comes to crafting meaningful dialogue among his or her fictional characters.

    If nothing else, I’d like readers of this commentary to consider the intricate mechanics of human interaction, of which there are many, and most of which are either body language or spoken language. Strong dialogue, interspersed with delicate, often barely perceptible inflections of tone and demeanor can, by themselves, drive a novel with little else being necessary to the story. Such is the power of well written, well punctuated dialogue. There is nothing an actor can do on the stage that cannot be replicated on the page. And vice versa, I suppose.

    If your characters are not constantly interrupting each other in a hundred different ways (you know, like in real life) and you’re not sure how to punctuate such interchanges, chummy up to our friend, the ellipsis. Learn its many moods, shades and colors. Dissect how it’s used in no less than a dozen of your favorite books. Note how its usage varies, where it’s the same in different books, and where it’s used differently by different authors (or editors). You’ll know you’re on the right track when you’re able to see it used improperly by another writer. Or where the punctuation conflicts with the speaker’s words. Or you know what the author meant to say, but you had to take the time to figure it out. Or worse, you’re left wondering what was said, why it was said, and how it was spoken.

    Once you make the ellipsis your BFF and adopt it as one of your most valuable writing tools, you’ll be able to write complex scenes full of complicated dialogue that you never imagined were within your reach before.

    So liberate yourself and your characters and let everyone say what’s really on your minds. You’ll look back one day and be unable to fathom a time when punctuating dialogue was ever a problem. Now then, as for writing good dialogue itself? Well, I’ll leave that for when Joel shakes my cage again and rouses me with some article I think I might know something about. Since my comments are few and far between (thank God, right?) this shows how rarely I’m willing to lay my literary neck on the proverbial chopping block. For the present, I’ve had my say and I appreciate the opportunity afforded by this forum to have said my piece. Thanks Joel.

    • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

      The contract with the reader: “I will tell you a story, and I will not confuse you by changing the rules as I go, unnecessarily.”

      Consistency is the key, as you rightly noted: whatever you do, do it deliberately – and do it the same way every time.

      Then, and only then, does your punctuation (or other) choice fade quietly into the background and get out of the reader’s way.

      I hated the lack of quotation marks for dialogue in All the Pretty Horses – talk about lack of respect for the reader! – but by the end of a chapter or two, my brain was figuring out who was speaking when without conscious intervention, which allowed me to finish the story. I won’t read it again – or any other work by the author (once is enough) – but I got through it.

      As a child of nine, because it was available at my house in Mexico where works in English were sparse, I read Huckleberry Finn. Same thing: Twain uses a convoluted way of letting his characters speak. I’m assuming it was aimed at ‘educated folk,’ and the aim was to sound as if we were in his rural southern location. It worked – I had the system down in a chapter or two, and could read the rest of the book to get the story. Because he was consistent.

      A lack of this respect for the reader will now keep me from reading anything with awkward inconsistent phrasing and punctuation – to me, it indicates that the author doesn’t quite have writing under control yet. Or doesn’t care. It does seem to go with awkward inconsistent plotting and characterization, so it’s not a decision that prevents me from reading good stories.

  5. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Thanks for the tracking -60 tip! I’d worked out the non-breaking space used with full stops for myself, because I hated the way the elipsis character looked in the fonts I was using. And I discovered the hard way that regular spaces with full stops could break very unfortunately in an ebook! But I hadn’t solved the sometimes too-spacey problem. Excellent!

  6. R. E. Hunter

    The two examples you give at the top look identical to me, in both my RSS reader (Akregator) and the Chromium web browser.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, that’s odd. The first example compares 2 lines of type set in quite different fonts, and the second shows 2 lines in the same font but with different spacing for the dots in the ellipsis.

  7. Michael W. Perry

    Quote: “I wonder if this is a polarizing issue, as in many authors and readers have strong feelings about the ellipsis and others… not so much.”

    It can be. One book I worked on had many contributors with lots of ellipsed quotations. Coming up with a common standard proved to be a hassle. Editing everything to that standard proved even more so since it required a knowledge of the original quoted text.

    Two rules help:

    1. Never use an ellipse to deceptively quote someone. It’s not an excuse to lie or distort.

    2. Where problems exist, rewrite. That’s particularly helpful when a writer wants to quote text where several sentences or even several paragraphs intervene. It’s usually much better to break the quoting and say something like, “Several paragraphs later Winedigger explains that, “More quoted stuff.”

    In general, where there’s a conflict between rules or a squabble between writers and editors, a clever rewrite can make the problem go away.

    Ellipses, always a bit clumsy, can also be avoided with insertions, as in:

    “President Lincoln,” Winedigger claims, “left no clear plans about how to deal with the South after the end of the Civil War.” He goes on to write, “That left what happened up to the new President Andrew Johnson,” he continues, “whose sympathies lay with the slave-owners.”

    Note that, for each of those breaks in the quoting, there may be some intervening text not made glaringly obvious by ellipses. Sometimes I fret that doing that isn’t quite honest. For instance, the original might have read: “President Lincoln, although usually a meticulous planner, left no clear plans…”

    But if Rule 1 is followed, no deception is involved and what’s there reads a lot more smoothly that with the stops and jerks of ellipses.

    Also, as far as I know it’s still legitimate to use a M-dash to indicate a pause in someone’s speech. That’s more dramatic than an ellipse and isn’t as typographically messy.

    M-dashes were used that way in many 19th century novels, including a novel I’m currently editing. Back then they also seemed to think that the M-dash didn’t mean that other punctuation could be omitted, so I’m changing a lot of “,—” texts, which look odd today, to just an “—”.

    There was probably a time when “,—” versus “—” meant a squabble. Now the issue seems settled.

    And don’t forget another solution to messy quotations. Simply do an indirect quotation, as in “Winedigger notes that Lincoln left no plans for dealing with the South after the Civil War, which left what happened to his replacement, President Andrew Johnson. That can get messy though, since it often requires some clear-to-readers way to transition out of giving Winediggers opinion and back to writing one’s own views.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Auburn, AL

    • Joel Friedlander

      Very helpful, thanks Michael. Even to this day, the use of the em dash (—) overlaps with the usage of the ellipsis.

  8. Jason Matthews

    I wonder if this is a polarizing issue, as in many authors and readers have strong feelings about the ellipsis and others… not so much.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Jason, I’m betting this is a pretty small club, and disagreement about the use of ellipses pale in comparison to the all-out wars over comma usage.

  9. Tracy R. Atkins

    This has got to be the best article on the Ellipsis I have ever read. This is probably the most misunderstood and misused punctuation mark in modern use. Very good info.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Tracy, it’s the kind of micro-detailed information only typographers and technologists can really appreciate.

  10. Michael W. Perry

    That’s a marvelous idea and deals with an issue that has long bothered me, getting an ellipsis to look better than the stock ellipsis in a font.

    But the books I create also need to look good (or at least not insanely ugly) as ePubs exported by ID. I wonder if you could export that fiction writer’s book and see what the result is. My hunch is that it’ll become a string of wide-spaced periods that can break in the middle when a line breaks.

    That touches on the central thing that’s wrong with ePub and ebook readers. Ebooks should look primarily to printed books for design clues and not webpages.

    Web pages are short, read quickly, heavily illustrated, and viewed by scrolling. Even if they’re ugly, they can be endured because we quickly move one. Ebooks are lengthy, read over long periods of time, typically only lightly illustrated, and viewed in pages. In short, ebooks are more like books than webpages. That means a book is a far better model, with typographers and layout experts having control of the result to make it more enjoyable for readers.

    Have we done that? No. Ebook standards are based on web standards with web designers making the rules and developing the readers as if they were web browsers. You see that in all the ebook readers so ill-designed, they can’t even prevent a widow or orphan. I read an ebook that broke to a new page that had not just one word but simply the “ly” at the end of a word. That’s all that was on that page. Even the most clueless reader can recognize that as clumsy and ugly. And coding that away shouldn’t be that difficult.

    Ditto teaching ereaders to understand basic elements are writing such as ellipses and handling them properly. Those doing book layout should be able to control how ebooks display like they can what appears on the page of a book. And ebook readers should be smart enough to deal gracefully with any issue that arises over reflowable text and movable page breaks.

    End of rant…

    • Deb Dorchak

      My first thought (after “oh, how COOL!”) was, would this formatting carry over into ebooks? I’ve done a few where special characters are ignored, despite being added to styles. With epub not so much, but Kindle’s .mobi has a mind all its own and never in a good way.

    • Joel Friedlander


      “Ebooks should look primarily to printed books for design clues and not webpages.”

      Couldn’t agree more. On the one hand you have a mature capability, honed over hundreds of years, of how to present long and detailed documents to readers. On the other hand you have a bunch of engineers reared on web standards. When the influence passes back to the book designers, you’ll know that ebooks are maturing.



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