FireFox File menu

Firefox File menu showing ellipses

Many of you may be familiar with the use of ellipses in menus, but do you know the rules for when to use them?

On the right is the File menu from Firefox. Some of these menu items (such as “Open File…”) have an ellipsis after them and others (such as”New Window”) do not.

An ellipsis is used to mean that the software will need to open a window to ask for more information before it can complete a command.

A specific example of this would be a menu that contains two commands:

Print
Print…

The first Print command, without an ellipsis, would mean that the current document will immediately be sent to the printer. In other words, when a menu item does not have an ellipsis, it means that the action will take place immediately.

The second Print command, with an ellipsis, will open a print window to ask for more information (such as which printer, number of copies to print, etc.)

So in the Firefox File menu the Print Preview command will run immediately, but the Print command will require more information.

Open a window?

For some designers ellipses are more broadly used to mean this command will open a window. So, for example, in the Firefox example, some designers would put an ellipsis after “New Window” because it opens a new window.

The Windows User Interface Guidelines say that “[Ellipses] indicate that a command needs additional information. Don’t use an ellipsis whenever an action displays another window—only when additional information is required.”

So just because a command opens a window doesn’t mean that it should have an ellipsis. Sometimes the command’s entire purpose is to open the window, such as in New Window. In that case, the command has been completed without further information. It’s just that for that particular command, completing it meant opening a window.

File menu from PowerPoint (for Mac) showing ellipses

PowerPoint (for Mac) File menu

I think this rule leads to some confusion and problems interpreting the use of ellipses. Look at the menu for Powerpoint (on the Mac) on the right, specifically at the Properties command.

Choosing this command will open the Properties window, where the user can set the application properties.

There are two ways to read the meaning of this command:

1. “I want to set some properties” – in which case, the software needs to ask the user for additional information to complete the command. So the command should have an ellipsis.

2. “I want to open the properties window” – in which case, the command is completed and should not have an ellipsis.

Since the command is just one word, the meaning of the command is open to interpretation. If we changed the command to be: View Properties, for example, then it would be clear that we do not need an ellipsis.

On the other hand, if the command were Set Properties then it would be clear that it does need an ellipsis, since it’s not possible to Set the Properties without further information.

If the design continued to use just the word Properties, then it would be a toss up, since the meaning isn’t clear. In these situations, many designers err on the side of using an ellipsis, anyway, which I think is an acceptable solution in this case.

What do users think?

I think the broader question is: are ellipses working? It would be wonderful to compare user interpretations of menus with and without ellipses and see what they think will happen when those commands are chosen. Many users I’ve spoken to informally say that “ellipses means a window will open” – but they tell me that if I ask them directly about it.

I wonder whether they would miss ellipses in their menus if they went away entirely? If designers can’t even agree on when to use ellipses in menus and if ellipses are applied inconsistently throughout applications, how can users be sure of what they mean?  How can they be useful?

My guess is that ellipses fall into the “somewhat useful” category. Some users look for them, and to those users they can be helpful, if they’ve been used correctly. But most users don’t give ellipses a moment’s thought. It would be interesting to find out.