Abusing Punctuation: The Ellipses…

Ooooh.... lovely ellipsis! by Sergio Santoro, {PD}

Ooooh…. lovely ellipsis! by Sergio Santoro, {PD}

I am reminded by my readers that I have been negligent in posting this summer–I blame it on a parade of weddings, the likes of which I have never experienced before–but you all still deserve my sincerest apologies. I hope a post on a Wednesday alleviates some of my blame.

 Recently I came across an article on Slate about ellipses… that series of periods, used in a row, like I just typed in this sentence. I was astounded–previously Slate had discussed the em dash, and I’d blogged about how much I love that particular piece of punctuation (as you can see). And here is a discussion of ellipses, another piece of punctuation I abuse terribly.

 Why do I, and many other writers, overuse ellipses so much? The article suggests two reasons:

         people use them to more accurately recreate the sound of speech in writing (for example, to indicate pauses, and replace ‘um’ and ‘ah’)

         it’s a lazy way to connect sentences, without having to think about how one sentence relates to the next one.

 Well, I think both are true, in my case! If I want to be noble about my motives, I could explain to you that I use ellipses most often in texts and emails, and when I write fiction, mostly in my dialogue. I have also used them when I want my fictional narrator to have a more conversational tone. It does sound more realistic, because people trail off in conversation all the time. I have a bad habit of doing this.

 If I want to discuss my more ignoble uses of the ellipses–yes, it is a wonderful bit of punctuation to insert whenever you are lazy and don’t know what else to say. It means I have more feelings about this hanging around my brain, but I’m not able to put it into words right now, so why don’t you fill in the blanks for me? Needless to say, lazy writing is bad. I often have to go back through my fiction, and decide whether all my ellipses (and em dashes!) are really necessary, or just taking up space.

 That said, apparently writing in general is becoming more and more informal. For instance, semi-colons make me uncomfortable, because I can never find a way to use them that doesn’t look pretentious. But then I am reminded of what beautiful prose can look like–elegant, formal, well-crafted sentences that maybe someday I can achieve. For example, here is a sentence from a celebrated piece of non-fiction written in 1966, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” If I had written this sentence, I may have liberally sprinkled it with dashes and ellipses, and the effect would’ve been ruined. So, as a finishing flourish to this post, I offer it to you to examine:

 “Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra — A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain.”

 Yes, that’s all one sentence. Quite a different sort of style from what this blog usually offers, isn’t it?

What do you think about the writing world’s sudden plunge into a sea of little dots known as ellipses? Is the turn towards informal styles of writing a good thing?



Filed under On Writing

6 responses to “Abusing Punctuation: The Ellipses…

  1. Aunt J

    Really would be interested in hearing what you think of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and his use of punctuation and grammar, especially his use of stream-of-thought.


    • I’ve heard James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is very inventive, but I’ve also heard it’s a pretty difficult read – so I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it myself! But if I do, I’ll let you know my opinion on it 🙂


  2. Pingback: Stories and Stuff’s Top Posts in 2013 | Stories and Stuff

  3. Guest

    Forget about the ellipses. Your problem is that you use way too many dashes in your text, which is a horrible habit for a writer. For example:

    “Well, I think – both are true, in my case!”

    What is the point of having a dash there between “think” and “both”? To imitate a conversational pause? I think that your otherwise fine post was difficult to read because of this. If you are concerned about looking pretentious, beware that an overuse of dashes is no better than an overuse of semicolons.


  4. Coming across this post years later, and couldn’t help noticing the author consistently misusing en dashes in place of em dashes. Sigh.


    • Thanks for your comment. At the time, I couldn’t figure out how to get two hyphens to convert into emdashes in WordPress (turns out it’s super simple), so many of my old posts use en dashes instead. I’ll update this post!


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