The Ellipsis and Clarity

EllipsisThe ellipsis is probably the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language. It is made up of three periods. And it means… Let me see now… Well, mostly it means that something is missing. But is it something concrete or just implied. When it’s used in dialog, it generally indicates that someone trails off, not finishing their sentence. It is implied that there is more to say but the speaker doesn’t say it because they are distracted or confused or…

In nonfiction writing, it is normally used when quoting material. Take, for example, the classic line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This is usually misquoted, because no one cares about Horatio, whose only real claim to fame is being the only principle character in the play who doesn’t die in it. So if you wanted to quote accurately but get rid of Horatio, you could write, “There are more things in heaven and Earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And this has been the way that I have used it my entire life.

Unclear Ellipsis

There’s just one problem: it isn’t clear. People add ellipses to their writing all the time. So if you didn’t know the original quote, you wouldn’t know if that was what Shakespeare actually wrote, as thought Hamlet were pausing because he thought he saw his father’s ghost. A better solution then, would be, “There are more things in heaven and Earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Then there is no question that the ellipsis is used to indicate that the quote is missing text.

Now this is a pretty banal and obvious point. I normally wouldn’t take the time to write about it. But until just a few days ago, I always connected the ellipsis to the preceding word. Obviously I didn’t when the preceding text ended with a question or exclamation or quotation mark. This added inconsistency to my lack of clarity.

Bad Reasons for Bad Punctuation

The reason I did this was the same reason behind so many bad punctuation practices (eg, the lack of the serial comma): I liked the way it looked. And that’s so embarrassing!

As much as possible, I like to quote full sections of text, and not have to cut little pieces out of it. It looks bad, but it’s also harder to read. This is why I usually cut out starting conjunctions without using square brackets to capitalize the new first word.

Suppose I had a sentence like this, “But images look great.” If I wanted to get rid of the first word, I would quote it as, “Images look great” and not, “[I]mages look great.”

I believe I got this from Fowler. There’s no loss of clarity, I’m not changing the meaning of what the original writer is saying, it is easier to read, and it looks better. And I always used that justification for attaching the ellipsis to the preceding word. But it came to me suddenly that this practice did reduce clarity. And worse still: it did it in a way in which the reader wouldn’t even know.

So from now, the ellipsis will always have a space in front of it.

Afterword

There are, of course, front ellipses: indicating that we are picking up the text already in progress. I never use them. They’re awful. It is even better to add text inside square brackets, although neither is usually necessary.

4 thoughts on “The Ellipsis and Clarity

  1. I usually just added square brackets around the ellipsis so any addition to the text is consistently marked and, if the original author used ellipsis, it’s clear when it was originally there and when not.

  2. I often use ellipses to avoid repeating myself, particularly when describing how to do something or how something works. The first time one has to explain each and every step, but this gets old fast, and it gets in the way of understanding how the whole process comes together. Ellipses can make everything a lot clearer. (Granted, I’m a computer person, so I’m often writing for a community where ellipses have a particular usage in technical writing.)

    Speaking of ellipses though, does anyone still use apostrophes to indicate elided letters? I remember trucks with B’kl’n on them when Brooklyn wouldn’t fit. Fo’c’sle anyone?

    Also, aren’t those three dots just one character or glyph now? I’ve been using option-semicolon since the 1980s.

    Minor thing: Horatio was a principal character. Peter was a principle character.

  3. I use ellipses a lot, especially when quoting books and websites. You can’t just put a period in a quote because that is changing the quote! It is important to use ellipses.

    • I don’t understand what you are getting at. All I can come up with is that you are reacting to the image. Finding images for articles about grammar is a very hard task. The image here doesn’t have anything to do with the article itself, except in as much as I try not to use the ellipsis. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but I would rather just provide the full quote. (It’s a rather different thing at work where brevity is important. But I expect much more of Frankly Curious readers.)

      All this article is talking about is a change in the style guide for the site: for the sake of clarity, I will not attach the ellipsis to the last word because it degrades clarity. And the number one principle that I use in writing is that clarity trumps everything. It is better to write an awful sentence than to confuse the reader. Now that is a point I would love to discuss with Fowler for a couple of hours. If you have a time machine, please let me know!

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