Dot, Dot, Dot, a guest post by Celia Johnson

Celia Johnson will be starting her Masters of Arts in Teaching program this summer at Southern Oregon University.

Dot, Dot, Dot

“It doesn’t say Molly and Roger, Forever. It says Molly and Roger Forever… dot, dot, dot! Like maybe it’s forever, maybe it’s not.” – The Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen

The most fascinating part of the ellipsis is that at its most basic definition it means a lack of something, or nothing at all. When looking into the classical uses of this piece of punctuation I was shocked to find almost no reference to the current uses of the ellipsis in a formal style guide. However, as the quote above demonstrates the ellipsis has taken on new meaning in the speech and writing of today. This change is not restricted to the youth and new generations, but by an entire network of technology using writers.
In order to understand how the ellipsis has taken on new meaning, it is important to know the definitive rules of usage that have been used throughout writing history. Although there are some slight variations between style guides the most concise definition came from Grammar by Diagram, “An ellipsis of three dots indicates that words have been omitted from the direct quotation. No ellipsis is needed at the beginning or end of a direct quotation if it is clear that words have been omitted” (Vitto 305). Although Vitto and some other authors go on to examine more carefully the usage and placement of the three dot ellipsis, and even four dot ellipses, there was never more than a page of detailed examinations of the punctuation mark. That might not seem odd with a period or even a question mark which are incorporated into the basic grammar lessons of young elementary classrooms, but the ellipsis is not taught very often and has a much more complicated use. In fact, even the name of the ellipsis is fairly unknown. It is most often referred to as the “Dot, dot, dot,” or the three periods.

The ellipsis does not have the large sweeping history of usage change, or even of usage. Until recent shifts in daily usage, the most controversial arguments that surround the ellipsis is whether it was three dots or four, spaced or grouped, and how to pluralize the word. There is a difference between three and four dot ellipses. The three dot ellipsis is used at the beginning or middle of a sentence when a period is not also essential. A four dot ellipsis is more common in the middle of a quote or at the end of a sentence when an omission and the end of a sentence are occurring simultaneously (Vitto 306). A good example of correctly used three and four dot ellipses is in dialogue when only on side of the conversation is being written: “Hello, may I speak to the manager please … Oh, OK, can you help me? … Please send the bloodmobile right away … Have you got a pen ready? … I’ll give you the address….” (Taylor). There is a serious of three dot ellipses in use because the speaker is either ending statements as questions, or is being interrupted on the other half of the conversation. However, the last line in cut off and the end of the statement requiring the four dot (ellipsis and period) ellipses.

Unlike other punctuation marks which are single characters, the ellipsis is made up of three dots, but how do you type out an ellipsis? Do you put spaces in between the dots? The answers to those questions are not as straightforward as one would assume. Some style guides show a preference for no spaces because it can take up too much space on the page, or even cause your reader to forget the information at the beginning of the sentence. The Elements of Typographic Style, author Robert Bringhurst suggests using dots right next to each other or inserting a special character that utilizes spaces smaller in width (305). Some typing programs are programmed to insert that special character whenever the user inserts an ellipsis. However, additional style variations may completely disagree. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests typing out three dots, “there is the potential for character-mapping problems—the ellipsis could appear as some other character across software and browser platforms—an added inconvenience. So it’s best to type three spaced dots, like this: . . .” (“Chicago Manual”). The spaced version is most accepted by schools and official writing styles such as MLA and APA. All ellipses are automatically changed to that version in Microsoft Word and Google Documents. Finally, the plural of ellipsis is ellipses, which is extremely confusing when typing a paper about them.

Although the ellipsis has found its use in the world of formal writing, it has been carving an entirely new niche in informal writing. Media such as texting, posts, tweets, and emails have all been affected by the introduction of the ellipsis. Even the users are confused as to how they picked up the habit of adding those three little dots at the end, or middle, or beginning of almost every communication. Lukeman in his grammar guide, A Dash of Style, warns against the overuse of the ellipsis and how its use becomes a writers addiction ““In an amateur’s hands, though ellipsis points can be a problem. They can become a bad habit a crutch to use whenever a writer doesn’t know how to firmly end a sentence. Worst of all… some writers think that merely because they conclude with (…) it will force the reader to read on” (Lukeman 189). Used sparingly the ellipsis can help lead a reader through a time jump, quotation, dialogue, and even into the emotion of uncertain. But informal writing has reinvigorated the punctuation mark into the queen on a chess board instead of the king. In this faction of communication an ellipsis can move in whatever direction she chooses, and become the agent of emotion, inflection, and implied meanings.

The ellipsis has ensnared more than just teenagers; there are countless blogs and articles written by writers who have found themselves entangled in the ellipsis revolution. “Recently it struck me that I have been using ellipses (. . .) quite a bit in my informal writing. Like most people I compose at least a few emails each day and while, by most standards I am an infrequent texter, I do send out a modest amount. In both of these formats I’ve been dot, dot, dotting left and right” (Sacasas). Teenagers, parents, college students and even professional writers have been affected by the trend of inserting ellipses. There are many different uses for it, each with a slightly different effect which has become second habit to read and comprehend. And it is not always easy to figure out why.

Some might suggest that it is out of laziness, but typing three dots takes more time than one. So why has this piece of punctuation taken over our writing? The theory that seemed most prominent and logical is that we are using ellipses more often in messages that still convey our personal voice. In formal writing we can avoid usage, but when we want the audience to read it with our inflections they start to appear more frequently. Matthew J.X. Malady, a writer and editor for Slate Magazine, noted his own usage: “I was delivering drifting, whiny telegraphs of emails: ‘Hey… this is great… I don’t know when I’ll get to an edit but… one thing is you should think about the ending there… but maybe I’ll find one in the middle for you, so don’t worry too much… okay more soon!”’ (1). While Malady found that his usage made him sound less authoritative in tone, the quote does read conversationally. Adding a more inviting conversational tone to texting, emailing, and updating statuses is a trend that has been evolving for some time. Teenagers have been dropping declarative sentences instead opting for phrases and patterns that display humility and the possibility of being wrong. A comedy sketch replicated this pattern perfectly using the ellipsis as the punctuation of choice: Declarative sentences … so called, because, they used to you know … declare things to be true … ok … as opposed to other things that are like totally … you know … not … They’ve been infected by this tragically cool and totally hip interrogative tone … as if I’m saying, “Don’t think I’m a nerd just ‘cuz I’ve like noticed this okay … I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions … I’m just like inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty …” (Sacasas). Once again, this style of writing and speech is allowing for the input of others, allowing the speaker to not take a strong position and avoid offending anyone else. While this style of usage is prominent it is not the only one, and can sometimes even be reversed with the usage of ellipses.

Many text messages read with more emotion when adding the ellipsis. Some people use them to indicate flirting, while others use them to show worry or sincerity. A phrase that changes drastically in meaning with the addition of an ellipsis is the simple phrase ‘hi’. When an ellipsis is placed before the word ‘…hi,’ it can indicate a reluctance to start the conversation. The parties involved might have been fighting and the person sending the message is the one angry. If you reverse the order ‘hi…’ it indicates that the sender might be worried that the other party is angry. Using of the ellipsis to display emotion allows the user to communicate how they are feeling without being too harsh or overwhelming. One example is the statement “I had a really great time…” by adding the ellipsis there is an implied flirtiness that can be ignored without causing humiliation to the sender.

Of course in order to make the usage of an ellipsis successful the reader needs to understand the implied meaning. The ambiguity can be confusing if the reader does not know the sender very well, or projects their own meaning to the text instead of the intended. Malady did a small experiment by sending out ten random texts to his friends and family with no meaning behind them. The results were ten completely normal responses, thus demonstrating how the receiver will fill in meaning when an ellipsis is in use. “Next I sent an even vaguer text to my mom: “All Star Game………….” Who knows what I meant by that one. I didn’t, certainly. Sure, the All-Star game was on TV at the time, but beyond that, what was I getting at? Mom wasn’t fazed in the least: “I’m falling asleep…Really tired” (2). When the intent can be discerned by the reader the ellipsis can be a great writing tool to show emotion, invite conversation, ask a question, or even just demonstrate a lack of a response.

The ellipsis is being repurposed, and in some cases writers have developed an addiction to the usage. It is versatile, takes little thought, and runs the least amount of risk of offending someone. However, when the usage starts to interfere with professionalism and clear communication an intervention might be necessary.  

Works Cited

Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 2004. Print.

Lukeman, Noah, and Noah Lukeman. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

Malady, Matthew J.X. “Why Everyone and Your Mother Started Using Ellipses Everywhere.” Slate Magazine. 29 July 2013. Web. 28 May 2014.

Sacasas, Michael. “Dot, Dot, Dot.” Web log post. The Frailest Thing. N.p., 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 28 May 2014.

Taylor, Luke. “Grammar Grater®.” Minnesota Public Radio News. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 May 2014.

“The Chicago Manual of Style Online: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide. 28 May 2014.

Vitto, Cindy L. Grammar by Diagram: Understanding English Grammar through Traditional Sentence Diagraming. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. Print.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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