Friday, June 20, 2014

Grammar Nerds: Ellipses

If you don't care much about grammar specifics, here's your warning that this series of posts won't interest you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift.

Today's focus: ellipses.

First, what is an ellipsis? It’s those dreaded (to some) dot dot dots: ...

Now let’s make sure we’re on the same page about correct uses. Ellipses can indicate an omission from a quote. Consider books that have gushing quotes from well-known authors on the cover. Sometimes there’s “...” in the middle of the quote, which could mean the marketing department either shortened a lengthy comment or cherry picked the best phrases from a review. You’ll also see plenty of this kind of ellipses in academic essays where students trim quotes down to the part that concisely emphasizes their point. 

I would call the above a technical use of an ellipsis, but there are also more creative uses. For example, an ellipsis can indicate a pause in the middle of a sentence. (My preferred creative use of ellipses, by the way. Though grammatically acceptable, the other creative usages I’m about to list always irritate me.) An ellipsis can also show an incomplete thought when placed at the end of an unfinished sentence. Last, ellipses at the end of either a complete or incomplete sentence can imply something is being left unsaid and at the end of a full sentence often conveys hesitation, confusion, or irritation, to name a few possibilities. I think why the latter usages bother me is because it’s impossible to tell for what purpose the ellipsis was intended, what it’s saying. I know when an ellipsis is pointing out an omission in a quote or a pause in dialogue, but when it’s at the end of a sentence or fragment the reader is left to guess what of the many potential emotions the writer meant to suggest. (In some cases, the guessing game is exactly the point, but more often than not it strikes me as poor writing.)

As for incorrect usages, sometimes people clearly throw an ellipsis at the end of a sentence without any idea what purpose that punctuation mark serves. I see this especially in texting and emails. Take, for example, when a friend texted me “Have fun on your trip...” If an ellipsis is meant to suggest something unsaid, what’s she leaving unsaid? “Have fun on your trip...but I wish I was going with you.” ? “Have fun on your trip...but I’m sad you’ll be gone.”?  “Have fun on your trip...but I happen to know where you’re going has an outbreak of rabid bears.”? “Have fun on your trip...but I’m mad that you still haven’t taught me what an ellipsis is.”? There’s an implied “but” by an ellipsis, except many people don’t realize that. I’ve also received “Congratulations...” and “Thank you...” from a former co-worker prone to ending every email with an ellipsis. The simple way to remember: don’t use an ellipsis this way unless you are leaving off a “but” clause.

Anyone want to weigh in? Did I omit any correct usages? Does anyone share my annoyance with the ambiguous - if grammatically acceptable - ellipsis implying something unspecified? How about entirely unnecessary ellipses in texts and emails?

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