In praise of the ellipsis

Style guides and standardisation have beaten out any creativity in punctuation. The near eradication of the multi-purposed ellipsis has been one of its greatest losses.
ellipsis in praise of
The ever-versatile ellipsis. Credit: Liia Galimzianova / Alamy Stock Photo
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Who are the great stylists of modern journalism? Plenty of names will occur to plenty of people but it’s hard to think of someone who really ignores conventions in order to make their writing work… Writing is supposed to be constrained, conforming, in keeping with house style. It is supposed to be ‘good’. Sure, there are writers with humour, a few with flair, and maybe one or two with panache. But where are the Tom Wolfes, the people prepared to use exclamation marks and italics? We think we live at a time of an abundance of good writing, but so much of it is really just that… good writing… at which point good is no longer good enough

One thing we ought to encourage in order to break this equilibrium of well-mannered mediocre prose is a better use of the ellipsis. Hell, at this point any use of the ellipsis would be an improvement… Pick up any style guide, I almost mean that literally, and you will find ellipsis noted as the punctuation mark used to indicate a gap… and nothing more. Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong. The ellipsis is an irreplaceable method for showing disdain, avoiding the subject, offering a knowing delay, bringing a sense of speech to the page, or just being plain snarky. It allows you to pause and then move on without the need to tell anyone why…

Most good writers know this. Or they ought to… This parody of Tom Wolfe, for example, has some exemplary ellipses. Good luck finding them in any other page of any other paper. Much is made these days of the decline of the semicolon, which is, for some, the only way they’ll ever get to use one in an article. So we ought not to hold out much hope for the already dead and forgotten ellipsis. The march of progress favours plain prose…

But ellipses are real English, English as it is spoken, English as it exists online. Not just because we know it as the universal symbol for, ‘Someone is Writing a Message’. It’s the reserve currency of Millennial speak. Where would the faux-ironic, Rooney-esque prose of the not-quite-middle-aged millennial even be without the resort to a knowing ellipsis…? It isn’t just the kids, either. As Gretchen McCulloch showed in her marvellous book Because Internet, boomer postcards were full of ellipses back in the day, as their SMS messages are today, only they often look like ,,,,,, rather than … 

So what gives? Printers have been standardising the use of written English for the last two hundred years and the ellipsis was partly the unlucky victim of these neat freaks. The real problem is that the ellipsis is so useful for indicating subjects too delicate to be handled in plain prose. They are the censor’s favourite. And the stuffy writers of the eighteenth century, including the otherwise saintly Jonathan Swift, thought the ellipsis was a sign of lazy writing. Highbrow Umberto Eco thought the three little dots were ghastly. So obviously the legions of his… high-minded fans will avoid the ellipsis for fear of seeming ghastly themselves. They join Lynn Truss, that pedant’s pedant, who called the ellipsis the ‘black hole of the punctuation universe.’

But the ellipsis was good enough for Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, T.S. Eliot. Pick up a book by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich and you will see ellipses everywhere. Goodness, William Shakespeare used them… (Austen, by the way, was also proficient in the use of italics.) What more do you need to know? To mark yourself as one of the prose stylists of your time, do what Umberto Eco and Lynne Truss would disapprove of… Be ghastly!

Henry Oliver

Henry Oliver is a writer and tour guide. He writes The Common Reader. He is working on a book about late bloomers.

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