“All hail the power of an ellipsis,” proclaimed a recent Guardian column, which went on to fete the punctuation mark’s mystery and economy. Two days later, the paper ran an essay on the first ellipsis to grace English theater: an “incomplete utterance” in the 1585 translation of a play by the Roman dramatist Terence. Except, the piece acknowledged, the statement in question was broken off not with dots, but with a dash. This is a baffling development for an article called “How the Ellipsis Arrived in English Literature.”
Consider the ellipsis.
OK, now. Consider the ellipsis …
The three dots extend from the end of the phrase like a ledge into the surrounding silence. They co-mingle the thrill of possibility with the fear of irresolution. Who can say what varmints lurk, what vistas shimmer, to the right of those humble stepping stones? Who can say if there’s anything there at all?
Dashes—useful and lovely though they are—are not … ellipses. They excel at representing interruptions, trains of thought abruptly shorn off. Meanwhile, an ellipsis trails away gradually, delicately, all hesitance and apprehension. If a dash indicates the sudden arrival of a fiend in a Bram Stoker novel (“The curtains flutter strangely in the moonlight, I hear a noise—”), an ellipsis means the monster has come and gone, and things aren’t looking good for the victim. (“It had … fangs … my neck … ow.”) According to The Chicago Manual of Style, “ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.” While dashes jolt you forward, ellipses make you pause and linger.
Unsurprisingly, ellipses appeal to some of our most … elliptical … authors, for whom what’s not said exerts more pressure than what is. F. Scott Fitzgerald may not usually qualify as a student of the iceberg school—he favors lyrical abundance—but he does sneak a state-of-art ellipsis into The Great Gatsby.
“Come to lunch someday,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
… I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
Carraway’s ellipsis works in the service of a dreamlike rapidity, connecting two fragmented images that seem to conceal, somewhere between them, a homosexual encounter. (We also get a moment to let the double meaning of “lever” sink in, making these dots a dignified cousin to a “that’s what she said” joke.) Likewise, James Joyce’s short story “The Sisters,” from Dubliners, is a tissue of implication and nuance, an ellipsis bonanza. Its tone: pure claustrophobic secrecy. After a priest who may have sexually abused the narrator dies, a pair of women discuss the loss in careful language:
“Did he … peacefully?” she asked.
“Oh, quite peacefully, ma’am,” said Eliza. “You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.”
“And everything … ?”
“Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.”
Omission communicates the questioner’s propriety, and perhaps her discomfort with the sensitive topic of death. It also gestures toward the power of other unspoken facts, allowing two horrors—mortality and pedophilia—to bloom in our minds without specifically invoking them. Conjuring absence as presence, Joyce’s ghostly ellipses have one foot (one dot?) in the grave.
A fellow modernist, T.S. Eliot, makes his punctuation similarly chilling in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “I grow old … I grow old …,” sighs the speaker, his life disintegrating along with the refrain. Maybe Umberto Eco was right to decry the “ghastliness of … three dots.”
But not all ellipses are ghoulishly suggestive. Some—the kind a colleague calls “ellipses of anticipation”—are exuberantly, epically suggestive! Star Wars begins with one such dot dot dot: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” (A more prosaic example of the anticipatory ellipsis might be the three blue orbs that appear on your iPhone when someone’s texting you back.) In a Peanuts strip, Snoopy types out a flurry of paperback clichés (“Suddenly a shot rang out. A door slammed. The maid screamed.”), and then frets that he “may have written [himself] into a corner …”. His final punctuation—not to mention the conditional “MAY have written”—adds a charming understated wryness to the punch line. But what’s especially great about Snoopy’s ellipsis is how it resists the very closure he fears. As the dog’s words trail off beyond the strip’s last square, those dots become the thread leading him out of the corner. Where Joyce’s ellipses suggest fracture or disjunction, the anticipatory ellipsis implies continuity, a world or life persisting independently of what appears on the page.
Yet unbeknownst to anyone, there was a catch …
Typing furiously, the blogger forgot to account for one thing …
Could the hackneyed use of ellipses … end it all?
Fitzgerald wasn’t the only early-20th-century wordsmith to notice that an ellipsis could gin up suspense. Penny dreadful scribblers and yellow journalists adopted the mark wholeheartedly, entwining its brand with high melodrama, cheap commercialism, and camp. (Think “curiosity gap” clickbaiting, but more waistcoats and fewer sloth bears.) Adorno, noting the dots’ prevalence in comic books and trashy romance, argued that a “hack … must depend on typography to simulate … an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something [he] does not have.”
Yet this critique strikes me more as an argument against bad writing than it is an effective indictment of a particular lexicographical tool. Sure, some ellipses feel hammy and overwrought. But others allude to charged material with superlative restraint (as in Fitzgerald or Joyce). They can be gently mysterious (as in this twilit reverie by Langston Hughes). They convey the endless rovings of consciousness. Consider a stately description, from Virginia Woolf, of Mrs. Ramsay taking in a vast decorated poster in To the Lighthouse: “Each shove of the brush revealed fresh legs, hoops, horses, glistening reds and blues, beautifully smooth, until half the wall was covered with the advertisement of a circus; a hundred horsemen, twenty performing seals, lions, tigers …”. With no words wasted, one hears exactly where her interest falls away.