Earlier this week, a solver posted this question in a public forum: “I haven’t been doing the Nation puzzle for that long. What is the significance of the ellipsis at the end and beginning of consecutive clues?” It’s a great question, and an example of the kind of thing that can become so transparent to experienced solvers and constructors that we lose sight of the possibility for confusion.

The short answer is that the ellipsis is there purely to help the surface of the clues read in a natural way. The premise is that two clues joined by an ellipsis can be construed as a single sentence or phrase, reading right across the clue boundary. But that’s only on the surface, mind you—when it comes to solving, each clue stands alone and yields its own answer.

As constructors, we find that we resort to ellipses under two conditions: opportunity and necessity. Sometimes we join two clues together simply because we can—when the workings of random chance lead to consecutive clues that either share a subject matter or have syntax that goes well in combination.

Here’s an example of two consecutive clues sharing a subject, probably (if memory serves) placed together by design rather than chance:
   ESTONIANS Northern Europeans’ surprising sensation… (9)
   CROATIANS …tattered raincoats for Southern Europeans (9)

And another:
   PENALTIES Palestine suffering punishments… (9)
   TRESTLE …from violent settler frame (7)

More often, it’s the possibility of smooth syntax that prompts us to use the ellipsis, as in this example:
   BYPASS Go around near spas, running amok… (6)
   ODDLY …in a peculiar fashion—or did I lay this way? (5)

But by far the most common thing that prompts us to use ellipses is sheer necessity—when a clue simply can’t make good surface sense on its own. Often that’s because the definition is a preposition or a conjunction, which are awkward at either the beginning or end of a clue. So we do things like this:
   PETROLEUM Favorite part? Er… It yields gas…(9)
   NEATH …under unmixed hydrogen (5)

Or this:
   AGAMEMNON Mythical king is willing, with Minoan leader coming in soon… (9)
   TOP HAT …to cool stovepipe (3,3)

All of these examples fall under the general rule that punctuation can be safely ignored while solving. But don’t forget that no rule is completely inviolable. Solvers, for instance, ignored punctuation here at their peril:
   SEMICOLON Wise lawmaker eats stewed mice;…(9)
   SHERBET …for example, oregano stuffing prescribed for dessert (7)

One of these days, ELLIPSIS is sure to show up in a grid, and then all bets will be off.

Do you have thoughts or concerns about the use of ellipses in clues? Please share here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

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• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.