How to use ellipses correctly

Ellipse (stylistic device)

In contrast to the mathematical phenomenon, the ellipse is a rhetorical stylistic device. What exactly is meant by this and how it affects the reader can be explained with the help of a few examples.


The word ellipse comes from ancient Greek, where ἔλλειψις (pronounced: élleipsis) roughly meant "omission". And that is exactly what the stylistic figure describes within the German language. If a word - more rarely even several words - is deliberately left out, one speaks of an ellipse in all disciplines of literary studies. Some examples can illustrate this fact.

Example 1: Famous Quotes

"Veni - vidi - vici" (Julius Caesar): Literally translated, this famous saying of the Roman general means "I came, (I) saw, (and I) won." The terms in brackets are often deliberately left out in the German translation so as not to falsify the elliptical expressiveness of the Latin original.

Example 2: question and answer game

For example, when asked in a restaurant: "What would you like to order?", Many people do not answer in full sentences. Instead, they say “the 141” or “the roast pork” instead of “I would like the pizza with the number 141” or “I would try the roast pork”. Here, too, one speaks of ellipses.

Example 3: The emergency call

When there is a fire you shout “fire”, if you are ambushed or have an accident “help”, and when soldiers are shot at in the field they shout “grenade”, for example. It would also be useless to work with complete sentences in such dangerous situations, because the risk of being misunderstood is far too high. Panic also contributes to the shortness of breath in these elliptical statements.

Example 4: The correction

When a person makes a false statement, the answer is often simply "No, ..." plus the correct statement. “Anna's favorite food is hamburgers.” - “No, spaghetti.” The correct answer should be: “No, Anna's favorite food is spaghetti.” The same also applies to the corrections made by teachers in school assignments. If you cannot write in full sentences in the margin what exactly the student's mistake was, then in a way, make elliptical corrections as well.


Ellipses can have very different effects on the recipient. In the literature, the stylistic device is certainly used deliberately and actually not debatable. If you answer a question more elliptically, it has something to do with the economization of your own language. You want to save time or not delay the other person unnecessarily long. Certainly the most important are ellipses in emergency situations, as noted in the calls for help described above. However, the detail on the phone remains important, for example when calling the control center of the emergency service, because information is sometimes vital there.

Info: Also in politics (and of course in advertising) ellipses are extremely popular in the sense of a language economization. For example, the American President Obama quite deliberately shouted “Yes we can” instead of a more detailed sentence. But ellipses belong to literature, which in turn belongs to art. And art doesn't have to make sense.