“Mom, what’s the dot dot dot for?” My son Kyle asks me, deep concern in his voice. He’s clearly been thinking about this for awhile. “You just sent me an email, and you keep doing that. Same with Robo. At the end of every sentence, he’s got dot dot dot.”
He’s talking about the ellipsis, my three favourite dots in the whole world.
Robo (Coach Roberts), is the rugby coach and he sends weekly, inspiring emails about the state of practice, fundraising, and the upcoming season. Like me, he uses ellipses a lot.
Season is about 2 months away…”
I am having the Senior Rugby Class complete a writing assignment on the 1st Chapter of the Book the LEGACY…it’s all about character!”
“Oh you mean like…” I pause and then use hand gestures to, um, show the dot dot dot. “It means your thoughts are trailing off.”
“I don’t get it.” He looks at me, frowning slightly.
Okay, “It’s like blah blah blah. When you can’t be bothered say the rest of the sentence.”
He stares at me some more.
I thought that was a pretty good analogy. People say “blah blah blah” more than they write it, but it means the same thing, doesn’t it? Well, there are actually a couple of uses for the ellipsis.
But first, a little history.
History of the ellipsis
In printed works, the ellipsis can be traced as far back as the 16th century when hyphens and dots started being used to show words left out.
Cambridge professor Dr. Anne Toner (who wrote a whole book on the ellipsis), discovered its first use in English drama. She calls it a “brilliant innovation”. Seems like other writers of the time agreed because it didn’t take long for the ellipsis to catch on.
Shakespeare gave his character Hotspur some ellipsis action in Henry IV, Part I:
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for–
That might be what we’d call Extreme Unfinished Speech.
But there’s more to it. The dots and dashes appear in print from the 16th century, but another mark appears in handwritten manuscripts even earlier. It’s called subpuncting. Three dots under a word used to indicate the word is omitted.
Omitted but not removed.
In other words, subpuncting was used to omit a word, but still show the word, like a strikethrough. (The Subpuncts. Sounds like a good name for a band.)
Are subpuncting and the ellipsis related? The debate between scholars of punctuation rages on.
Proper use of the ellipsis
And now what you’ve been waiting for.
Mary Norris, The Comma Queen of The New Yorker, made a video about it. She demonstrates ellipses with Christmas lights, which makes them even more fun.
- Use three dots within a sentence to indicate that words have been left out.
- Use three dots between sentences (so it looks like four dots including the period), to indicate two or more sentences have been left out.
- Use three dots to indicate thoughts trailing off, or faltering, fragmented speech.
- Use three dots in mathematical notation to indicate that a number continues in a clear pattern, or is the indefinite continuation of an irrational number.
And a few don’ts:
- Don’t use the ellipsis to change the meaning of a quotation.
- Don’t use two dots or four dots to make an ellipsis. Always use three dots.
I love the ellipsis: in novels, emails, and the number Pi (3.14159…). But some people think it’s overused. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
About On the Side
On the Side is a now-and-then feature on Mintedleaf that attempts to improve my cognitive reserve. Middle brains need that. Information. Knowledge. Now’s the time to fill the tank folks. So, short articles on the history of punctuation, geomythology, and Old London Bridge, may appear here from time to time.