Ellipsis (Gk meaning ‘leaving out’) is a rhetorical figure in which one or more words are omitted. In classical and medieval texts ellipses were unmarked, but the practice of marking them originated in late 16th c. drama as a manifestation of the imperfections of the voice: the omissions, pauses, and interruptions fundamental to spoken language. From their inception ellipsis marks were variable in appearance, and a continuous rule (-), a series of hyphens (—), or a series of points (…) were all used, depending upon the resources and inclination of the printer. Asterisks (***) were first employed to display hiatuses in the printer’s copy-text, but as rules and points came to be used for other forms of omission (such as censorship or citation) strings of asterisks became interchangeable with alternative forms of ellipsis marks.
It was not until the late 19th c. that clear distinctions began to be made between the marks. The dash, or continuous rule, had become the most common of the symbols, signaling abrupt changes or breaks, whereas points began to imply a longer, more hesitant pause. Points also became the preferred mark for indicating omissions from quotations, leaving the asterisk the primary role of marking footnotes. Such standardization has become increasingly pervasive throughout the 20th c. due to the uniformity imposed on writers and printers by the house-styles of large publishing firms, a resulting dependence on style manuals, and latterly the spread of the word-processor. These influences have also standardized appearance: hyphens now rarely make up a rule, dashes are usually one em in length, and an ‘ellipsis mark’ is comprised of three points (or four if a full-stop is added), rather than the indiscriminate number of points, rules, or asterisks that previously signified ellipses.