Tag Archives: punctuation

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

Death of the Em Dash?

Or, Why I Will Never Give Up This Bad Habit

Never, never, never, I will not give up the em dash—even though I probably overuse it.

em dashEm dashes are not hyphens. They are not used to connect two words, but rather to connect two different thoughts, and they are longer than hyphens. I used one in the paragraph above, see if you can find it. 🙂

This article in Slate calls for an end to the use of the dash, saying it’s unnecessary and (horror of horrors!) a mark of poor style. (Oh boy, I better go back and edit all my blog posts, before my readers think I’m some kind of caveman). Though the author of the article does quote  Strunk and White as saying, “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” So I maintain the other punctuation marks are usually inadequate.

Commas are too short of a pause, and usually cause comma splices when you use them to connect ideas.

Periods, followed by capital letters, are too harsh and abrupt. Anyway, if I used these instead of dashes I’d have millions of tiny sentences littering my page, instead of flowing paragraphs.

Semicolons look too ridiculous and formal (Look, everyone! I know how to use semicolons properly!) I think they are only proper in academic writing, or if your fiction is a certain kind of stiff writing style.

I overuse ‘…’ too, so what can I do but interchange those pauses with dashes? After all, some pauses happen because the character is your story trails off, which needs a ‘…’, but some pauses happen because the character is cut off, and an em dash (—) is prefered for that.

What about you? Do you like using an em dash, or is there another piece of punctuation you overuse/misuse?

UPDATE: I have replaced all the en dashes in the above paragraphs with the proper em dashes. Yes, there is a difference. Half a millimeter of difference. 🙂 Interestingly enough, some typographers argue for the use of an en dash flanked by spaces instead of using em dashes. Typographers will argue it looks better—editors and grammarians probably will not. (See here for more info)


Filed under On Writing