Friday, December 15, 2017

Bluebook Rule R5.3 and the use of Ellipses with Quotations

The proper use of ellipses when quoting authority may not be the most pressing concern for overwhelmed law students, but it is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new legal writers.  The unnecessary overuse of ellipses at the end of quotations is by far the most common error I encountered when grading students’ first attempts at legal writing.

So, what to do if you are omitting the end of quoted material? Or the beginning? Or in the middle?

The first place to look for guidance is Bluebook Rule R5.3.  The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation R5.3, at 78 (Columbia Law Review Ass’n et al. eds., 20th ed. 2015) (affiliate link).  The Bluebook does a fairly good job, but doesn’t offer quite enough guidance, especially for students new to legal writing.

I will use a short quote from Dickens’s Bleak House (affiliate link) to illustrate the rule.  Note that I use a “# to represent spaces in my examples to indicate where spacing is required.

Example: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke.  That is the only good that has ever come of it.  It has been death to many, but it is a joke in the profession.”  Charles Dickens, Bleak House 5 (Andrew Lang ed., C. Scribner’s Sons 1899) (2009).

At the most basic level, the rule can be stated like this:

Omitted Material at Beginning of Sentence

1.)    If the omitted material is at the beginning of a quoted sentence → No ellipsis [R5.3(b)(i)]

                Example:[I]t is a joke in the profession.”  Dickens, supra, at 5.  [R5.3(b)(i)]

Omitted Material at end of Sentence

2.)    If the quoted material = phrase or clause in your sentence → No ellipsis  [R5.3(a)]

Example: As Dickens said, “Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke” and it has ruined all involved, save for the lawyers.  See Dickens, supra, at 5.  [R5.3(a)]

3.)    If the quoted material = entire sentence → Ellipsis Required [R5.3(b)]

Example:Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke.  That is the only good that has ever come of it.  It has been death to many#.#.#.#.”  Dickens, supra, at 5.  [R5.3(b)(iii)]

Note: Ending the sentence requires the addition of a period (or other relevant punctuation mark) following the ellipsis. [R5.3(b)(iii)-(vi)]

Omitted Material in the Middle of Sentence

4.)    If the omitted material = inside quoted sentence → Ellipsis Required [R5.3(a) & R5.3(b)(ii)]

Example: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke.  That is the only good that has ever come of it.  It has been#.#.#.#a joke in the profession.”  Dickens, supra, at 5.

I hope that this restatement of the Bluebook rules and examples will make the appropriate use of ellipses clear.  There are several other situations discussed in the Bluebook that I have not mentioned here, but in general, if you follow the four guidelines I have laid out, your usage will be correct almost every time.  For a great detailed explanation of R5.3(b) see C. Auster, BB Rule 5.3(b) or Who Knew?, Baron of the Bluebook (Aug. 25, 2011), 08/25/bb-rule-5-3b-or-who-knew/.


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Comments: 4

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  • Neil

    Legit question:

    Say you have a clause “been death to many” that you’re using. If that clause is at the end of a sentence, are ellipsis required? eg.

    -Whatever happens know that such a job is always a joke, and that job “has been death to many.” –
    -and that job “has been death to many . . . .” –

    Bluebook does not have this exact situation, but rather only the 4 you mention. As it’s a mix of clauses and omissions after the phrase this has always confused me.


    • That situation would be governed by Rule 5.3(a) and would not require an ellipsis. The quoted language is still only being used as a phrase or clause regardless of its placement in the sentence. I hope that explanation helps.

  • Russell Gerrish

    In Rule 3, don’t you mean, “If the quoted material = NOT entire sentence”? Yes, there are 2 complete sentences at the beginning of the quotation but the last sentence is incomplete.

    • It is meant in the sense that the sentence is comprised entirely of quoted material with the end of the source material’s sentence omitted (rather than the quoted material being a clause or phrase).

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