Dot Dot Dot?

I ran into a slight snag in class Friday. I’ve been afraid of this kind of snafu since I started teaching, and it has only now surfaced.

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who loved him some MLA format. He loved it. He knew it backward and forward and inside and out and sideways and longways and upways and downways and diagonally and—well, you get my point.

When he said something about MLA, you listened. He was the kind of professor that if a period were out of place in a citation, it was points off. If a quote were misformatted, points off. God help you if a comma were used instead of a period (or vice versa). So we learned very quickly that when he had one of his “MLA Instructions” nights, we took notes, paid attention, and did the very best we could to abide by what he said.

EllipsisSo when he told us how to properly and professionally format an ellipsis, we listened. It was no longer the “dot dot dot” we had known for years—“…”—but now it was a “square bracket, dot, space, dot, space, dot, square bracket,” or “[. . .]” We thought he was crazy, but it was what he wanted, so we went with it so as not to lose points. He told us that it was the MLA way of formatting an ellipsis. And we took him at his word. Or at least I did.

When I began reading more professional and scholarly articles, lo and behold, he was right. I would see “[. . .]” in quotations instead of the lowly “…” I had always thought of. So when I began teaching composition, I figured I’d give my students a heads-up I never had. And everyone had listened and done as I instructed in their papers.

Until Friday.

As I was going over mistakes in their first papers and how to correct them, I had a student who, as I spoke, looked up what I was talking about in our college’s grammar handbook, Hodge’s Harbrace Handbook. (I’m not a huge fan of the book itself anyway, but it’s what the department uses, so I muddle through and do my job the best I can). As I’m talking, she raises her hand and said what I’ve feared for a year now: “But that’s not what the handbook says. It doesn’t say anything about brackets.”

As a professor, I’ve reached a crossroads, and I’m not sure what to do. Do I tell them the handbook is wrong? Do I tell them that I am wrong? Or do I simply ignore what she says and tell them to do it my way because, after all, I’m the teacher?

I went with the “that’s a new edition that just came out in July, and they might’ve changed the MLA in it with the new update, but this is the way I was taught and see it in professional journals” route. Now, I’m not an MLA acolyte, and I generally won’t deduct points for having a misformatted ellipsis (it’s truthfully not that important to me), but I want the students to learn how to do things the right way. And when a handbook contradicts the way I was taught to do something, I’m not sure how to handle it, especially when a student calls out the discrepancy in front of the whole class.

I feel a little undermined in my own classroom, and I don’t want to lose credibility as an instructor, especially over something as minor as punctuating an ellipsis. But it’s the small things that add up to something that matters. As new as I am at the school, I definitely don’t want to get the reputation that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

How would you folks have handled being called out like that and basically being told that you’re wrong in your own class? Did I handle this the right way? Or am I reading way too much into the situation (as per usual)?

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By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. It is even worse in German language and literature studies. Each university and sometimes each professor seems to have his own style. The only rule they agree on is that one should stick to one style and not mix them.

    I know the MLA style and I also read the MLA handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and it demanded double spaced lines if I recall correctly, but everyone used 1,5 spaced lines.

    I suggest you just tell people the same story as here on your blog, and tell them that at THIS university, and in many other universities and most professional publications, THIS style is used.

  2. What you could do is use it as an opportunity to demonstrate how it's possible for two different ways to both be "right" at the same time. There's nothing inherently right about either the MLA style or the HHH rules. They are both conventions… they are "social contracts", products of ritual.

    So what is the intention behind such social conventions? I think it is one of consistency. We like consistency because it makes it easier to read the papers, and without having to quibble about such picayune matters we can focus on what really matters, which is the content of the thoughts being expressed.

    Most academic institutions adhere to MLA, but this one in particular uses HHH. It's probably a boon for some to realize that learning MLA may be advantageous, so keep teaching. And get yourself proficient with HHH, because not knowing it well *does* undermine your credibility at this particular institution. Let your students use either convention, just so long as they're consistent.


  3. As a college student, I would encourage you to simply let them view it as a new perspective/tool as a writer. I have the ellipsis done both ways and many others (in screenwriting).

    Let them know that they will see it with brackets time and again, and that knowing it is a acknowledged format is something a scholar should be AWARE OF, not necessarily a must-do.

    As a writer, I don't do everything my professors have taught me, but I am aware of many people's expectations so that I can be a flexible writer and not someone who is out of the loop. I wouldn't take points off, but when something like that comes up again, just cite your personal references and make them aware of its existence.

    Don't worry about it Beej. The constant struggle for writers is subjectivity, even in punctuation. Making students aware of the diverse facets of the English language is part of your job. There's no need to falter.

  4. What with leaving in Europe, my frame of reference – no pun intended – is likely rather different in these matters. It is also my distinct impression that there is a much stronger tendency towards a unified system in the States, even though the comments here indicate the opposite. I know in my own experience that the requirements for how to do these things right usually differ widely from teacher to teacher, course to course, faculty to faculty and institution to institution. But it never really matters as long as you, like Jane says, remain consistent.

    Anyway, for what little, then, my opinion on this is worth for you, I think you handled it well enough and that there is nothing to worry about. If this were to come up again; just make it clear this is the sort of thing that varies a lot from place to place, and state your own preference, whilst letting them clearly know that doing it like the handbook says is equally acceptable as long as they're consistent with whatever they do.

    Don't worry about it, is my basic point.

  5. I had a professor once that made the point, the reason you go to class is for the professor. If you could just read the book and get the lesson out of it, then there would be no reason to pay the tuition to speak and learn from a real live person. Hence, while the textbooks have the content that must be learned, it is ultimately the student who is choosing to allow a professor lead in that learning process. Being the leader in the learning process, it is your presence that they should worry about. Especially since it isn't the textbook that grades them. 😉

    Of course, this doesn't mean you have to be hardassed about it and be, "I'm right and the book is wrong." Just tell them, that you had figured there would be places that would leave out the brackets, and that is why you wanted to show them the correct way. You can go ahead and tell them you don't have a preference.

    I had another professor that if you noted a contradiction, he would just respond with, "Huh." Then offer that if you write him a two page report on why the book says something different, then you got some extra credit.

  6. English is a living language. People keep changing things in it. I, for one, think the bracketed ellipses looks idiotic. I also intentionally ignore the "rule" about putting a period *inside* the quotation marks if the quoted bit ends a sentence. The period belongs to the sentence, not the quote.

    Many of these fiddly little MLA rules are completely arbitrary and nonbinding from one generation to the next. In the words of Colette in Ratatouille, they are the works of "antiquated old men". I have no problem ignoring stupid rules made either by one person with inordinate influence, an ivory tower committee, or mindless social trends.

    More than anything, I think that teaching people how to write should be more about promoting clarity of thought and clarity of communication. Arbitrary systems of punctuation and format strain at gnats in a perverse "oneupmanship" competition to straitjacket the written word.

    There are all sorts of idiotic rules, like the "double space after a period" which has been changed to single space (I still prefer double; it looks cleaner to me), the inconsistent behavior between punctuation and quotation, and citation insanity.

    Yes, I'd lose points in a hardnose class, but I'd rather spend my writing time crafting compelling content, not obsessing about the window dressing, spending inordinate time on the minutae that has miniscule value.

    If anything, your original professor is doing a disservice to his students by being caught up in the details. It's no wonder college students don't manage to learn how to *think* these days. They are too busy with periods and commas.

    So… rant concluded, I think you handled it well, though I would note that you could go further. There's no shame in being a bit behind the times when they constantly change the rules. There's no shame in not knowing rules that have no reasonable effect on the *content* of what your students are writing. English changes. That's part of the game.

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