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In business communication, is the use of ellipsis, those three dots "...", intended to be dismissive of the recipient? Can it be construed as rude?

My knee-jerk reaction is to read these as rather disdainful to the point of being outright rude.

As an example, a perfectly ordinary:

The TPS reports shouldn't have gone out before they were reviewed.

Versus:

The TPS reports shouldn't have gone out before they were reviewed ...

In my mind whenever I see those three dots of doom I automatically substitute with some version "you idiot" or "as anyone competent would know".

I typically make a conscious effort to ignore these and just assume good faith on the basis that different people have different styles and perhaps for some this counts a perfectly ordinary punctuation. But it's hard not to read a deeper meaning into these dots.

Is the use of ellipsis commonly considered to be unprofessional? Should I ban the three dots from my business communication?

Should I continue to assume good faith when I receive a message like this and disregard the "..."? Or does it make sense these days to interpret them as a sign that something is up?

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    As someone who uses them all… the… time… I don't mean for them to be rude, so try not to interpret them that way. After reading this question and answers however, I agree the they should be avoided in general. I'll do better from now on. – Odalrick Dec 4 '19 at 15:18
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    @Jonast92 I think the thing that made me start overusing them was discovering alt-. on a mac is the "…" character. So I used them for everything: to indicate pauses, instead of "?" on rhetorical questions, in stead of "and so on", to say "I'm trying something locally" et cetera. Mostly in Slack, so more of a chat-vice; trying to mimic what speech would be. – Odalrick Dec 5 '19 at 12:24
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    Personally, I use them to express uncertainty (e.g. "I think it does..." as a more uncertain version of "I think it does."), and also pauses in general when they seem relevant enough to express (e.g. "I'm having trouble understanding this part of the code... is this function from library X?... but it's not imported, so I guess not..."). – JoL Dec 5 '19 at 17:38
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    This is a huge oversensitivity on your part, there is nothing about ellipsis that is rude . – notmySOaccount Dec 5 '19 at 22:12
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    There's an entire section in McCulloch's "Because Internet" about how there is a generation gap in ellipsis usage. To older writers, it indicates a pause; to younger ones, it indicates something being left out. See e.g. twitter.com/JbKnockout/status/1113599570682867712 (I couldn't make this an actual answer because I lack the rep for "highly active" questions, but hopefully someone else can build it out) – Erin Anne Dec 6 '19 at 22:17

11 Answers 11

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Yes, the ellipsis in this usage should not be used in professional environment.

The only "good" usage of ellipsis in a sentence you're writing1 is to replace etc.

Why one shouldn't use it?

Written communication is subject to interpretation. In a professional environment, you always want your message to be as clear as possible so everyone will get the message you want. Using ellipsis can be interpreted different ways and there is a high risk one will consider this rude.

And if I want to express something with this ellipsis?

Then express it clearly. In your example:

The TPS reports shouldn't have gone out before they were reviewed ...

What do you want? Not doing it again? Then say this:

The TPS report shouldn't have gone out before they were reviewed. Please make sure it won't happen again.

If you want to express anger or disappointment, don't go for this kind of communication, do it respectfully.

The TPS report shouldn't have gone out before they were reviewed. I'm disappointed this happened again. Please make sure it won't.


1 As said in comments, you can use ellipsis in a quote to replace irrelevant sentences (like [...]) but I suppose that's not what you asked for.

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    "The only "good" usage of ellipsis is to replace etc." I would think "Written communication is subject to interpretation. ... Using ellipsis can be interpreted different ways and there is a high risk one will consider this rude." Is a perfectly acceptable usage. – user44202 Dec 5 '19 at 11:04
  • @Peilonrayz I guess you are right, but in that case, if you are going to omit something from a quote, you have to put it inside square brackets, otherwise it seems the quote itself includes the ellipsis. "Written communication is subject to interpretation. [...] Using ellipsis can be interpreted different ways and there is a high risk one will consider this rude." – David Dec 5 '19 at 11:14
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    My landlord is always writing like this "Hello... Have you handled the thing with the hot water... Thank you..." and it's getting on my nerves and it makes me want to ignore his messages. Even though he doesn't mean anything bad by it (because I know for a fact how he'd talk about the issue if I just called to talk) but it's still pretty annoying. So, yeah, I agree with pretty much everything in this answer, apart from the "express anger or disappointment" part. Don't do this. Just don't. Especially over written communication. Try to be as constructive as possible and communicate verbally. – John Hamilton Dec 5 '19 at 11:20
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    @David Some places don't use the square brackets. I can find some style guides if you really want. – user44202 Dec 5 '19 at 11:28
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    @JohnHamilton I don't think expressing anger or disappointment is a good idea, but my point is: if you want to do this, just as anything else in a written communication, make it clear and avoid writing something that can be understood differently. – LP154 Dec 5 '19 at 13:25
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I disagree with the conclusion reached in most of the answers provided so far.

Is the use of ellipsis commonly considered to be unprofessional? Should I ban the three dots from my business communication?

In my opinion, this is a matter of context. Yes, ellipsis just stuck at the end of a sentence, can be an implied rude or unprofessional comment. However, I think a blanket ban is going too far.

A couple of examples where usage is not rude or unprofessional:

  1. I quite often use ellipsis to indicate that I have deliberately left out something unimportant. I usually do this to avoid quoting long paragraphs of text, when only a couple of sentences are relevant to my communication.

  2. Maybe I'm just inviting further comment from the group, like this: "Does anyone have any further thoughts on the matter?..."

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    In the first example, I don't think that's what the OP had in mind but I agree. In the second, it's useless because you're already inviting further comment with the interrogation mark, and as is, I don't know how to interpret it: is it to imply you think no one will have any further thoughts ? Is it to imply you don't want anyone to have any further thoughts ? – LP154 Dec 5 '19 at 13:43
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    @LP154 agreed, I don't understand why you would use it there, it just adds needless confusion. – eps Dec 5 '19 at 16:18
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    You mean you use the elipsis to elide information?? :) – fectin Dec 5 '19 at 19:20
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    The first example is written (in German newspapers for example) with paranthesis "(...)" just pure three dots are read as speach pause. (which can imply rude things). The second is really confusing and I would be quite puzzled what they should mean in this context. – Goodbye SE Dec 6 '19 at 10:37
  • I use it as a longer break as well and maybe you could add that to your answer? In context such as "I don't know......I can check, but we've already committed for the week so even if we were to make the change, it wouldn't apply until next week." – Anoplexian Dec 6 '19 at 21:48
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Ellipses are perfectly fine if used correctly.

If you intend to indicate that you're skipping a bit of verbiage, especially when quoting a speech or a technical reference, they're perfectly acceptable.

For example, if you wanted to point out that there are six different date formats in ISO 8601, and you want to quote the W3c, their page says this:

Different standards may need different levels of granularity in the date and time, so this profile defines six levels. Standards that reference this profile should specify one or more of these granularities. If a given standard allows more than one granularity, it should specify the meaning of the dates and times with reduced precision, for example, the result of comparing two dates with different precisions.

The formats are as follows. Exactly the components shown here must be present, with exactly this punctuation. Note that the "T" appears literally in the string, to indicate the beginning of the time element, as specified in ISO 8601.

That's a pretty big chunk. If all you want to do is cite your source for the formats, then it's perfectly acceptable to do this:

Different standards may need different levels of granularity in the date and time, so this profile defines six levels ...

The formats are as follows.

However, anything can be misused in a passive aggressive manner.

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    I think if you're snipping out some irrelevant text, it's more common to use the ellipsis inside brackets: "This profile defines six levels (...) The formats are as follows" – ObscureOwl Dec 5 '19 at 10:36
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    I think it's more standard to use square brackets inside a quote to indicate non-quoted material (whether that's an ellipsis to indicate omission, or ‘[sic]’ or something else to comment upon the quoted material). (In fact, in some contexts, ‘brackets’ usually refers to square brackets, and you'd need to specify ‘parentheses’ or ‘round brackets’ for round ones.) – gidds Dec 5 '19 at 12:13
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    @gidds round brackets are used in germany for all I know. – Goodbye SE Dec 6 '19 at 10:39
  • I've seen parentheticals and braces. They come off as more "formal," but dealer's choice. – Wesley Long Dec 6 '19 at 15:48
  • Hey, I got my -1! My stalker's back. Glad to see you. I was starting to think you'd fallen ill. Glad you're OK. – Wesley Long Dec 9 '19 at 15:46
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To answer:

Is the use of ellipsis commonly considered to be unprofessional? Should I ban the three dots from my business communication?

  • In case of any official / formal written communication, I'd strongly advise against using those.
  • For a casual quick chat over IM, this may be acceptable, but think this way, if you are at the receiver end, you'd not like to see those annoying and rude dots showing up on your screen - so why put anyone else in that situation?

To add, there's no hard-and-fast rule for this, but rule of thumb is:

If you feel something is rude, never use it. If you feel something is questionable, refrain using that either.

Many a times, the choice / acceptance depends on the recipient's understanding, culture and even timing of communication. If leaving off something can make the communication cleaner, so be it. Why take chances?

My conclusion: Just avoid using them altogether, it's not like you'll be missing some information in the communication by banning them. Also, if you stop using them, you're not giving any chance to others to reciprocate - thereby you're doing yourself a favor.

P.S - I personally dislike texting-like-written communication, "ehhh?????", "Ahhh...", "K", "S", "Y", "m8 b", so I make a conscious effort to avoid them, even in IM. Just as you mentioned, mostly I try to ignore, but if at any time I get annoyed with those, instead of getting angry, I respond with "What do you mean?" or "Sorry, what was that?" sort of response, so they have to put a proper formal wording. They cannot blame back on me, as I never use those, and asking for clarification in a communication is something that none can deny. Win-Win.

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    In regards to the bottom: It depends entirely on the tone of the communication being done. If chatting between employees is done very casually (as is the case in some company cultures), then things such as "ehhh????" may be completely legitimate. – MechMK1 Dec 5 '19 at 13:06
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    "if you personally find them rude, why use them?" is a good point. it's a sufficient reason on it's own (at least so far as the way they're used in the example) – aw04 Dec 5 '19 at 14:47
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Just to add a different perspective - in some cultural contexts, ellipses can be perceived as less rude than periods as the latter could imply curtness or sternness, while the former implies the speaker is making an open-ended suggestion. I have found this to be the case with some (especially older or less technologically savvy) colleagues in some organizations.

Just as an interesting aside, this could be understood through how in texting use of the period can make one seem angry or overly formal as opposed to using an exclamation mark, an emoji, or leaving sentences with no punctuation at the end (although ellipses also denote frustration or annoyance as well in this context).

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  • Thanks for this input, I was wondering if it was a stylistic preference with some people but I couldn't figure out the reasoning. This could make sense and it'll help to think of it like this with those colleagues who have this habit. – Lilienthal Dec 5 '19 at 10:07
  • @Lilienthal I second this one. Whether or not it should be in business communications is a separate issue, but at least in my experience dealing with Japanese business, leaving some things unsaid is the cultural norm. In your example, "..." probably means "so don't do it again!," but it may not have been the listener's (direct) fault. In this case, the listener should take it as "so take actions to make sure it doesn't happen again"--mostly the same meaning, without placing blame or technically wrong/misplaced accusations. – Mars Dec 6 '19 at 5:15
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It depends on context. In the examples you give the ellipsis certainly could be taken in a rude or dismissive manner. It would be best to avoid using one in those situations.

Those examples don't cover all cases. One might see something like:

Our clients include Megacorp, Very Big Company, Large Charity, ...

or:

The research showed that several products are promising : Thingamajig 1, Doohickey 2, Whatchamacallit 3, ...

In such a context the ellipsis shows that there is a list of more items, presumably too numerous to mention. Perhaps it would be more ideal to use "etc.", "and many more", "and so on", or some other phrasing, but the 3 dots aren't intended to insult the reader.

While not common, at times I have used an ellipsis in what I'll call informal business communications - usually emails to people I have worked with for some time and with whom I have a friendly relationship. Not only have I used ellipses in lists like above, but at times to show that I simply didn't type out a full thought when I thought it was obvious where I was going. Never have I heard a complaint, nor has it seemed to hurt a relationship.

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    Using ... as a substitute for etc. is common in french/spanish, but pretty rare in english and probably would cause some confusion for many readers. – eps Dec 5 '19 at 16:26
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"..." can mean different things depending on context.

In the context of business email or messaging, they're typically just examples of bad style or lazy writing, an excuse to write sentence fragments and incomplete thoughts. "..." demands the reader to fill in the rest of the info as though it were too trivial to just state explicitly.

"..." can have more sinister or dramatic implications, but that's better left to comic books and literature.

I think the most common legitimate use is when quoting a sentence fragment from someone else. You can put it at the beginning or the end or both as long as you're not using it to cherry pick something and omit crucial detail/intent.

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The proper grammatical use of ellipses is not really relevant here. You are asking if use of ellipses is generally intended as, or interpreted as, dismissive or rude.

The answer is no, it is not, and there is no point in taking offense at it.

In any workplace there are people that use lots of exclamation points, or ellipses, or "scare quotes", or Weird Capitalization, or other not really proper use of grammatical constructs. They are not doing this to mess with you. If you're a grammar Nazi you can take offense in general at the mangling of the English language, I mean, I'm with you there, but that's where it ends.

People write differently based on whether English is their first language, where they grew up, how good they are at writing in general, how they use Twitter, and so on.

Maybe they are consciously using the ellipses to mean any variation on "omitted content here." "You know what I say about checking in without tests..." Do I really need to go through my usual paragraph of spiel on that? No, we both remember it, I'm alluding to it.

Or maybe they are using it to mean "period" or "comma" or "semicolon" because they're incoherent.

But if you are taking offense at someone's use of ellipses, you need to take a vacation.

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I would say there isn't a hard and fast rule — an ellipsis can be safe enough in some situations but not others. The key question is, are you being clear with your tone and is the omitted information completely irrelevant?

When you end a sentence with "...", imagine you have replaced with the phrase "there is more, but I won't go into it here". In some situations that's not very emotionally loaded (such as when you are citing a long source, or just giving a flavour of a quote).

In the situation from your question, you are communicating a negative message which could well cause heightened emotions in those reading your message (because it contains a critical message). In that situation the reader will generally over-interpret any emotional cues. Ending the message with "there is more, but I won't go into it here" implies that there might be more issues you want to criticise them for which would likely make the recipient very defensive. A good general principle for communicating constructive feedback is to be very clear and not leave anything unsaid as the recipient may interpret any ambiguity in the most negative way possible.

Perhaps also worth noting that "..." has a very specific meaning in software/UX/design. If in a menu, an option ends with "...", it means that "there are more sub-options which you have to select this option to find out what they are". This is why you will often see menu options such as "open" (opens the file) and "open with ..." (you have to choose which program to open the file with). Note the ellipsis in the second case: there is a second choice to be made.

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  • contrasts with > (properly a right arrow or triangle). > means another submenu will expand when hovered over or selected. means a dialogue box will open when selected. – CJ Dennis Dec 8 '19 at 0:49
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I interpret it similarly to you. I see it as a gesture of shown silence, and a more or less subtle demand for a response. Based on context it can have negative connotations, but I can't think of a scenario where it could be interpreted in any positive way. For literature there is certainly good use of it ("To be continued..."), but not for professional communication.

Or did you really think there is?...

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There is another, perfectly acceptable, use for the ellipsis. It's to continue a sentence which is broken up by a citation.

Example:

I wish to draw attention to page 1, sub-paragraph 1, of the contract which states that...

[rule 1] Do not talk about Fight Club

... and I therefore feel any further verbal conversation should cease forthwith.

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