Sunday, 28 July 2013

On ... ellipses ... in texts

A correspondent writes to ask about the increased use of ellipses in text messaging, emails, and the like. He illustrates with 'where are you.... been waiting. are you there......we have to go soon........'and wonders why people use them so much in texting. He asks: 'Is it merely laziness or something more strategic/functional having to do with tone/conversation? People seem to use ellipses as replacements for every form of punctuation under the sun (question mark, comma, period, etc.), which should in theory lead to confusion on the part of the reader, but is that actually the case?'

I haven't noticed this as much as my correspondent, actually, but that probably just reflects the kind of messages I get. There's the occasional use of ellipsis dots, certainly, but then there always was on the Internet (especially in chatroooms) and in informal writing the practice goes back centuries. There are many literary antecedents. In recent times, Harold Pinter was one of the masters of ellipses as an indication of an unfinished thought or an unstated implication. Take a look at The Caretaker. Here's Aston talking in Act Two:

'They weren't hallucinations, they ... I used to get the feeling I could see things ... very clearly ... everything ... was so clear ... everything used ... everything used to get very quiet ... everything got very quite ...'

And Davies ends the play on an ellipsis:

'Listen ... if I ... got down ... if I was to ... get my papers ... would you ... would you let ... would you ... if I got down ... and got my ...
Long silence. Curtain.'

All this before texting was ever invented.

I wouldn't call it laziness. There's certainly an element of convenience behind a typing usage, as a period is often easier to type than, for example, a question-mark (which may involve a shift key). But the usage is much more than that. It's a further example of the way informal expression on the internet is getting closer to what happens in speech.

Imagine I'm telling you, face-to-face, what I've just written. You'd hear the pauses, the continuative intonation patterns, the variations in tempo (allegro, lento) which would show me actively processing what I want to say. Prosody is the main way of showing people 'thinking on their feet'.

Writing displays none of this. You will never know what pauses I had between the various bits of a paragraph. In fact, if I recall correctly, the paragraph before last went something like this: 'I wouldn't call it laziness ... There's certainly an element of ... convenience behind a ... typing usage, as a period is often much easier to type than ... for example ... a question-mark (which may involve a shift key) ... But the usage is much more than that ... It's a further example of the way ... informal expression on the internet is getting closer ... to what happens in speech ... '

This is becoming Pinteresque. The ellipses reflect the thought process, the decision points, the places where I was thinking how exactly to put what I wanted to say. (In Pinter they usually have a more menacing purpose.) In speech, these decision points are there for everyone to hear. And if (unconsciously) you want your writing to reflect speech, ellipsis dots are an easy way to show it.

They also show that punctuation isn't as important as people sometimes claim it is. I know we all have to use standard English punctuation in our formal writing (and Gove help us if we don't!), but the informality of Internet expression shows that these are conventions of correctness that bear little relationship to clarity and ambiguity. There was little by way of punctuation in the earliest English writing, in Anglo-Saxon times, and the texts come across just fine. Indeed, one can dispense with all punctuation and still get one's meaning across, as has often been shown - though, because we're not used to such things, it does become more difficult to read. Take the present paragraph, for example:

'They also show that punctuation isnt as important as people sometimes claim it is I know we all have to use standard English punctuation in our formal writing and Gove help us if we dont but the informality of Internet expression shows that these are conventions of correctness that bear little relationship to clarity and ambiguity indeed one can dispense with all punctuation and still get one's meaning across ...'

It's like the end of Joyce's Ulysses. The main effect, in such rewriting, is phonetic, not semantic. We miss the guidance punctuation provides about where to pause and take a breath and thus (cognitively) to assimilate what is being said. That's why punctuation developed in the first place: to help people read aloud easily. Ellipses, I suspect, are there chiefly for phonetic reasons too, not semantic ones.

Given that character totals are at a premium in texting and Twitter, you might think it surprising that there are ellipses at all - often many more than three dots, with people just holding the period ley down for as long as they like ............ A lot of dots reduces your character count. This suggests that users see a real point (sorry) in using them. It probably doesn't affect their textingtweeting style too much, as most texts and tweets don't use the full 160/140 characters, so there's still plenty of opportunity to put in some extra periods. And maybe that's another factor: users know they have room to spare, in routine messages, so they let their periods roam. I bet there aren't so many when the content gets more complex and structured, as in ads or news announcements.

8 comments:

Marc Leavitt said...

David:
I use ellipses judiciously in writing poetry and fiction; in the latter, in dialogue, to mimic the prosody of speech.

My practice cextends to emails, tweets, and textings.

Matt Keefe said...

I'm copyeditor, and use of ellipses does seem to be on the increase in prose fiction. This is primarily within dialogue, but occasionally in description by way of creating a false pause for cliffhanger effect. I personally think they're overused in both regards - they seem often to me to be used as a kind of all-purpose punctuation, when an author isn't sure whether to use a comma or a dash, or perhaps a semi-colon, and whether or not those marks would produce the kind of delay and separation they're looking for. I think many authors also see the ellipsis as the most visual punctuation mark and is overused out of a sense that it provides particularly great effect. My opinion is that... in many of these cases... something else would suffice and that the sufficiency of the words themselves in... creating tempo and providing pacing and timing... is overlooked.

I tend to find I can replace a great many instances of the ellipsis with another punctuation mark, sometimes for greater effect but usually for the same effect with greater inernal consistency. When pointed out to the author, few argue for the restoration of the ellipsis. I think it's something that feels quite natural to use when writing, but much less so when editing or reading. It's not the most overused mark by frequency - the comma is - but it is the most noticeably overused; most excess commas are just that - excessive, but acceptable, with little deleterious effect. Ellipses are often overwhelming.

Matt Keefe said...

I'm copyeditor, and use of ellipses does seem to be on the increase in prose fiction. This is primarily within dialogue, but occasionally in description by way of creating a false pause for cliffhanger effect. I personally think they're overused in both regards - they seem often to me to be used as a kind of all-purpose punctuation, when an author isn't sure whether to use a comma or a dash, or perhaps a semi-colon, and whether or not those marks would produce the kind of delay and separation they're looking for. I think many authors also see the ellipsis as the most visual punctuation mark and is overused out of a sense that it provides particularly great effect. My opinion is that... in many of these cases... something else would suffice and that the sufficiency of the words themselves in... creating tempo and providing pacing and timing... is overlooked.

I tend to find I can replace a great many instances of the ellipsis with another punctuation mark, sometimes for greater effect but usually for the same effect with greater inernal consistency. When pointed out to the author, few argue for the restoration of the ellipsis. I think it's something that feels quite natural to use when writing, but much less so when editing or reading. It's not the most overused mark by frequency - the comma is - but it is the most noticeably overused; most excess commas are just that - excessive, but acceptable, with little deleterious effect. Ellipses are often overwhelming.

Yvonne said...

I always use the ellipsis character rather than three separate periods/full stops. So on Twitter it's just one character.

Jayarava Attwood said...

The use of ellipses goes back even further. The Pāli Canon uses them. The Canon is a collection of Buddhist writings thought to have been composed in North India ca. 400 BC and written down in Sri Lanka ca. 100 BC.

When it came to writing the text down many of the frequent repetitions were abbreviated with the word peyyālaṃ which means 'repetition, sucession'. This is used in a variety of ways: e.g. to indicate a block of text identical to one in the preceding passage; or in a well known list of terms might be cited in the form of the first item, followed by peyyālaṃ and the last item.

And peyyālaṃ itself was often also abbreviated to pe. In modern editions of Canon set in Roman script the pe is often written "... pe ...".

As for the modern usage, I think we are aiming to represent the flow of conversational speech better.

Duncan said...

Ditto Marc & Yvonne (I will also often use an emdash rather than ' - '). I am, however, wary of the overuse that Matt refers to, even in informal writing such as Tweets. I suspect that the ellipsis is seen as adding more mystery and literary street-cred to Joe Ordinary's scratchings than would a boring old comma or tricky semicolon. A certain... je sais quoi...

Rashmi said...

I love reading your blog posts. Very informative and useful.

Currently, I am teaching a batch of A Level students who are about to take their exam in May. We are learning how language varies on different internet platforms. How do I simplify the linguistic terms for them and make it interesting for them at the same time? I would appreciate your timely advice on this matter.

DC said...

You're really asking the wrong person, as I'm a linguist, not a teacher. But you would get some help from my Language A to Z, which was written with precisely these aims in mind. See my website for details.