Earlier this summer, Choire Sicha, the writer, editor, and co-founder of the Awl, came to an unpleasant realization. His emails, he noticed, had veered into the realm of the ridiculous.
“Suddenly, one day,” he recalls, “I was delivering drifting, whiny telegraphs instead 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!’ ”
Sicha, it turns out, had “picked up a really bad ellipsis habit,” an affliction marked by three circular black dots that tend to appear, well, everywhere; in the most severe cases, anywhere from four to infinity dots will become visible. “It got out of control,” he says.
If you’ve been there, you know Sicha’s tumble into ellipsis overkill is no picnic. First it’s just three simple dots every now and again. Then it’s six at the end of text messages. Soon enough your average email consists of 48 dots and zero complete sentences. (For those looking to learn the actual rules of ellipsis usage, the Punctuation Guide provides a useful, if incomplete, primer. In more formal writing, ellipses are often used to show omissions from within a piece of text; in casual communications, they are used a zillion different ways. Individual style guides offer differing rules regarding numerous elements of ellipsis usage.)
Sadly, the curious case of Choire Sicha is far from an uncommon scenario. Shortly after hearing from him and deciding to examine the issue more thoroughly, I received an email from a friend in Ohio that included two sentences … and six dots: “I just got back from softball… we got CREAMED…” Surely it had to be a coincidence. Perhaps the message was an aberration, or a Baader-Meinhof–type recognition on my part. To the cellphone!
I scrolled through my text message inbox. Sure enough: ellipses everywhere! The most recent message was from my mom. It referenced a trip to Ireland by my aunt: “Got back last Saturday….they loved it!” A note from a friend, responding to a text asking whether he had any big weekend plans, followed: “No… Just the rib cook off tomorrow. Then house inspection on Sunday.… yay!” Another text near the top of the queue had been sent as a condolence of sorts for a loss by my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates: “Well, like you said….we can’t win ’em all.” I’ll spare you the rest, but nearly every message included … ellipses.
There were ellipses used in lieu of commas. Ellipses as question-mark replacements. In some instances, it was ellipses instead of a single period at the end of a statement, or 10 dots spanning two lines on my phone’s screen. What a mess!
And yet at no point in reading the mom text or any of the others did I find myself confused as to what the message senders were attempting to communicate. So I decided to run a little experiment. One night I sent a bunch of potentially confusing, ellipsis-infused text messages to those I interact with regularly and waited to see what happened.
My wife was the first test subject. This was the message I sent her: “Clicker…any idea.” Alas, she knows me too well. She knows that I refer to the television remote as “the clicker,” and she knows that I am never quite sure where it is. In retrospect, there was no chance she’d be tripped up by that text. Her response: “Side of the peach chair.” (We have a peach chair?)
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. Cutch struck out.” Four or five additional texts to assorted friends and family members resulted in similarly uneventful back-and-forth communications.
At no point did anyone reply with, “What the hell are you talking about?” or “Could you please give me a bit more information here?” And of course none of those folks mentioned anything about the ellipses. It would appear that when we are communicating with friends and others possessing the requisite context to understand our ellipsified ramblings, message recipients tend to make do just fine.
But that doesn’t mean using seven sets of ellipses to ask your roommate where he put the takeout menus is Pareto optimal. And it does nothing to explain why we all seem to be using these repeating dots so often.
On the surface, the rise of ellipses doesn’t make much sense. They don’t generally provide any sort of typing shortcut. Aside from when the shift or alt keys are involved—or when a new character screen must be accessed to type a mark using one’s phone—ellipses often require more key strikes and time than the alternative punctuation they are intended to replace. Plus, in most instances, we tend to prefer punctuation that is, first and foremost, clear. Ellipses, at least as they are used in text messages and emails and other forms of online communication (Twitter comes to mind) appear to offer the opposite of clarity.
So if ellipses aren’t shortcuts, and they aren’t especially clear, what’s going on here?
For Clay Shirky, an author, scholar, and New York University professor who studies the effects of the Internet and technology on society, the flood of ellipses is one signifier of a unique and interesting moment in the history of written language. He suggests ellipses are most often used as replacements for pause words such as um and uh. So, he says, “people are communicating like they are talking, but encoding that talk in writing.” For the majority of history, he adds, written words were drafted to be read much later, which led people to compose their thoughts in the form of full sentences.
“Now, though, much of what is typed is for swift delivery and has more the character of speech, where whole, unbroken sentences are a rarity,” Shirky says. “Speech is instead characterized by continuous flow, with lots of pauses, repeats, false starts … and pauses to indicate changes in direction. We’re living in a moment a bit like Alexander the Great’s time, when he adopted the altogether remarkable habit (or so Plutarch reported) of reading silently. The relationship between the alphabet and talking was progressively broken as people learned to sound things out in their heads. Now we’re seeing a moment of reversal, where people are trying to use alphabets like we’re talking, and it’s … hard. So we reach for the ellipsis.”
When queried about his ellipsis overuse, my friend on the terrible softball team—who is also a professor in the communications department at a large Midwestern university—went even further in connecting the dots to speech. He said he uses ellipses mainly because they help him feel as though he’s engaged in a more dynamic written conversation—with the ellipses serving mostly as intentional, meaningful pauses. “It’s largely a preference for what seems like a more dramatic way of presenting something,” he says. “When I’m writing my friends, I see that writing more as I would in conversation with them: more intimately, more expressively, usually with pauses for facial contortions and intentional negative spaces. On the phone, enough of the elements of in-person conversation are present that we can imagine what the person looks like on the other end. But email, and even texts, are so cold this way.”
For Sicha, there was something else at play when he was typing all those dots, though. “It was a way to write lazy emails, honestly, without having to think about syntax or relation of each sentence to the next,” he says.
There’s little doubt that the chameleon nature of ellipses has a great deal to do with their increased usage, says Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. “How nice to avoid question marks, commas, and periods accompanied by a capital letter, all of which signal specific and distinct expressions,” he says. “An ellipsis covers them all, or at least it does sufficiently enough to serve, and all it requires is a flat dot-dot-dot. It is also open and ambiguous enough to license the texter to skip details and clarifications.”
Ellipses, then, would seem to offer something for everyone. If we so desire, they can help carefully structure a bit of written communication so that it mimics some of the more subtle, meaningful elements of face-to-face conversation. But when we want to be lazy, they also allow us to avoid thinking too much while crafting a message.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that we’re using them so often these days. And our increasing reliance on fast, technology-aided forms of communication may mean that heavy ellipsis usage is not going away anytime soon. “Virtual encounters tend to be brief, faceless, and informal,” says Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. “So our e-addiction to ellipses seems to reflect the overall trend toward the informal. Emails are answered in an average of six seconds or less, and the average worker switches tasks every three minutes. We don’t seem to have much use for the full explanation, the complex conversation, or focused togetherness.” Adds Nicholas Carr, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: “I would guess the trend is less a reflection of laziness than of the pressure to be concise in composing messages that will ultimately be read on phones and other mobile devices.”
So maybe Sicha was a bit harsh in assessing his reasons for resorting to ellipses. After further reflection, he noted that there may have been more going on while he was typing those ellipsis-heavy emails. “It was a little bit of Twitter or texting leaching into ‘actual’ writing as well,” he says. “I was conserving space in my mind—even though, as we know, those [dots] are three unnecessary characters.”
It’s possible that in a 140-character world, ellipses are destined to reign supreme. But to what end? While Shirky boldly proclaims that there are “exactly the right amount of ellipses in the world,” not everyone agrees. Bauerlein says over-ellipsification in our written communications reflect “the deterioration of eloquence that characterizes the Digital Age,” adding: “The more leisure communications decline into clipped sloppiness and youth clichés, the more the language of the media, of celebrities, and politicians, and of public life in general follow it downward into hack diction, solecisms, and adolescent tics.”
Sicha, for one, has no desire to play a role in that descent. He is now working hard to reduce his ellipsis footprint. “I had to consciously and actively reassert my ability to send emails in complete sentences, with proper punctuation, like an adult person,” he says, a few weeks after defeating the dots. “Today, I am free.”