The Relentless Rise of the Dot Dot Dot

Angry man
Stickler, meet ellipsis; ellipsis, meet stickler.

Dot dot dots are dot-dot-dotted around everywhere these days. While those of us who get passionate about punctuation have been discussing whether semicolons have a place in fiction, or decrying the overuse of exclamation marks in emails, behind our backs the three-dotted fiend has been evolving and spreading.

And some readers of this blog are not going to be happy with what dot dot dot has been getting up to. Those of you who consider themselves sticklers for proper punctuation may want to stop reading here. Sticklers might wish to peruse WordPress’s Freshly Pressed section instead, where there’s sure to be another blog about leveraging social media to increase book sales any . . . second . . . now. (Sorry to use ellipses in an unconventional way there, sticklers. I fully intended to wait till those of you who wanted to leave this page had been given a proper opportunity to do so before unleashing the dots. Bad me.)

Should any sticklers decide to stick around – and it goes without saying I’ll be delighted if you do – I recommend you have a Mozart CD or bottle of Bach Rescue Remedy at hand, because you might need something to calm you down in a moment or two.

I would now like to extend a warm welcome to all you readers who’ve made it as far as this paragraph and inform you we’re going on a journey of discovery today. Well, perhaps not a journey of discovery exactly but more a journey of acknowledging something that’s been going on for a long time yet doesn’t get discussed much. A journey of confirmation, if you will. Because our three-dotted friend the ellipsis (also known as ‘ellipsis points’ and ‘suspension points’ in the States) has been busy, busy, busy out there on the frontiers of written communication – particularly in emails, comics and the place we concern ourselves with here, genre fiction.

I would hazard a guess that, during the last 25 years or so, ellipses have been the most avant-garde punctuation marks out there. Not much competition, really, as far as I can see. When was the last time you saw a colon do anything new? ‘Look at me! I’m a colon! I’m introducing a list!’ (Yawns. Looks at watch. Thinks about what’s for dinner.) Ever see a semicolon getting into some daring punctuational mischief? (Don’t mention emoticons, please.)

Our three-dotted friend, on the other hand, has been innovating for England. If punctuation marks were people, Mr Ellipsis would prefer it if you referred to him by his first name, Eli, and be hanging out with jazz musicians and contemporary artists who make installations from seaweed and paint with blood. Dot dot dot even enjoyed a period of fame – or should that be three periods of fame? Or, became three famous periods? – when it was mentioned in the film Trainspotting, released in 1996. You don’t see commas being namechecked in tales about Edinburgh’s heroin-ravaged underbelly.

Let’s get eyes on an ellipsis (note that WordPress won’t allow me to generate an Alt-Ctrl-period dot dot dot, which is my ellipsis of choice, so I’m using what follows as a substitute).

. . .

Look at it. No other punctuation mark, aside from a dash, covers so much ground laterally. Okay, your question mark, a Victorian street lamp of a piece of punctuation, has got a lot more vertical action going on, as has an exclamation mark, but when it comes to the horizontal plane, an ellipsis really spans space. That’s important to note, because a key function an ellipsis can perform is that of adding a split second to the time it takes readers to reach the next word in a sentence. An ellipsis used in this way is ground the eye has to cover. In other words, it introduces a beat.

Let’s begin our field study of dot dot dots by looking at some well-established uses of them in fiction. (Sticklers won’t find any of what follows in the next part offensive. When we reach the threshold of the dangerous section, I’ll give a clear warning.) Right, I need someone I can rely on to speak in a nervous way. That would be the Snow King’s new cellmate, then. You’ll remember that John Dudley, he of the parish of Dunbad Prison, nicknamed the Snow King on account of his being a cocaine dealer, viciously murdered his cellmate a couple of blogs ago. It stands to reason that his new cellmate is going to be apprehensive about having to share a confined space with him.

Let’s have them meet for the first time.

The Snow King was sitting on the edge of his bed, reading Nuts. A short and stocky middle-aged man with a ginger beard walked into the cell carrying bedding and a copy of The Lord of the Rings.

       ‘I’m . . .’ he said. ‘What I . . . This is my cell. I mean, your cell . . . It’s our cell now, I suppose.’ He smiled, put down the bedding and the book and extended his right arm towards Dudley. ‘I’m Brian. I didn’t get your . . .’

     The Snow King ignored him and turned the page of his magazine.

The first two ellipses indicate Brian trails off while speaking and doesn’t finish saying what he was going to say; the third also indicates he stops speaking, but in this case he stops after completing a thought. Note that the final ellipsis again indicates Brian stopped speaking before he finished what he was going to say – ‘I didn’t get your name’ in this instance – and not that Brian was interrupted by the Snow King. An em dash is used to show an interruption, not an ellipsis. Let’s rewrite the scene a little to show an em dash performing that function.

         Brian said, ‘I didn’t get your—’

         ‘Hey, hobbit features.’ The Snow King slapped his magazine down on the bed, stood and grabbed Brian by the collar of his shirt. ‘Who gave you permission to talk?’

By the way, if you use an ellipsis to indicate a speaker trails off or pauses, try to avoid saying he does, too. Don’t do this:

        ‘I’m . . .’ Brian trailed off. ‘What I mean is . . .’ He stopped.

Or this:

        ‘I mean, it’s your cell . . .’ Brian paused. ‘I suppose it’s our cell now.’

I see this type of thing a lot in manuscripts. You shouldn’t need to write ‘Brian trailed off’ or ‘He stopped’ or ‘Brian paused’, since the ellipses indicate those things happened. Have faith in the power of those dots, people.

Next on our list of conventional ways to use ellipses: phone conversations where the author reveals what only one of the two parties is saying. Here’s Brian talking to his wife on a payphone, which of course he had to queue for half an hour to use, since that’s always the way in prison-based fiction (prisoners in Brazil sidestep this problem by getting cats to smuggle mobile phones in to them – an obvious solution, really):

        “I’ll be fine, really I will . . . My cellmate?” Brian cleared his throat and put a smile in his voice. “Yeah, nice guy, actually . . . No, I don’t know why he’s here, no, but I think we’re going to get along just fine. We’ll be playing Dungeons & Dragons together in no time.”

What a liar, eh? I see John Dudley as more of a Scrabble kind of guy. Who cuts off your little finger and wears it around his neck as a trophy if you beat him.

In this case, the ellipses signify Brian’s wife is talking. Note how each ellipsis is being used to suggest Brian isn’t talking and instead is listening to his wife for a longer period than the time it takes the reader to cross the no man’s land of the ellipsis and reach the next word. The writer wants you to imagine Brian’s wife – let’s call her Samantha – is speaking in chunks. If we stopped and thought about it, we’d guess Samantha’s first question is ‘What’s your cellmate like?’ and her second is ‘What’s your cellmate in prison for?’

Right. Now comes the moment the sticklers will have been dreading. We’re going to cross a border and move on from talking about ellipses in dialogue to talking about them in narration. If you do decide to bravely continue reading, sticklers, now is the time to squeeze a few drops of that Bach Rescue Remedy into a glass of water, or tee up that Mozart CD. But if you don’t have either of those two relaxation aids at hand, read on without fear, because I have made provision for just that circumstance.

ELLIPSES IN NARRATION

While researching this blog, I read through 20 genre fiction manuscripts and looked at the use of ellipses in each one. Nearly every author used ellipses in dialogue, but only about seven or eight used ellipses in narration, and only four of these writers used them in what could be described as a full-bloodied way. Which means one in five authors wrote sentences like the following.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . . then butcher him.

Here’s a photo of a nice tropical beach I’ve been keeping ready to help the sticklers in moments of punctuational crisis like this one.

Tropical beach

Easy, now. Take deep breaths. In . . . out. (Sorry about the punctuation there.) Look at the picture. Keep looking at the picture.

In an interview I gave recently, I compared this kind of ellipsis to the moment in the UK version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when a contestant has given his or her final answer, and Chris Tarrant, the quizmaster, draws out the tension by taking his time to reveal whether that answer is correct. Since then I’ve taken to calling this type of ellipsis a Tarrant (a Vieira in dollars and cents). If that’s a Tarrant, the following is an extended Tarrant.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .

         . . . then butcher him.

Tropical beach

Focus on the nice picture of the nice beach, sticklers. Don’t look at the dots; look at the picture. Nice beach. Nice dot-less beach in dot-less paradise.

Those of you who can stomach those ellipses should look at the second one now. Though it helps lengthen the beat between week and then, lengthening that beat is not its main purpose. So what is that second ellipsis doing? Its function becomes clear when we try leaving it out.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .

         then butcher him.

Horrible. We really don’t like to see an indented new line start with a word the initial letter of which is lower case. But we’re conditioned to accept that a word can begin with a lower-case letter when it’s preceded by an ellipsis, so the second ellipsis smooths the connection between the two parts of the sentence. The ellipses plug both sentence parts together.

Let’s look at the original sentence again.

The Snow King decided he would tolerate his new cellmate for a week . . .

         . . . then butcher him.

I often see Tarrants used to punch up passages containing less dramatic revelations, such as the reporting of a character’s transformation. Imagine the Snow King has been taking anger management classes – and let’s face it, the guy needs them – and is now spending his free time looking after cockatiels and budgies and making model ships out of matchsticks. If I were an ellipsis-happy author, I might write a few lines describing Dudley’s new hobbies, then add this:

The Snow King was becoming . . . mellow.

An example of someone who likes to use this kind of Tarrant is the highly successful British crime writer Mark Billingham – or at least he was partial to Tarrants in his novel Scaredy Cat, first published in 2002, which I read last year. Billingham is also a stand-up comedian, and of course beats are important tools in joke telling, where timing is everything, so perhaps Billingham’s use of beats in comedy has influenced the way he punctuates sentences in his crime fiction.

You will have noticed I haven’t made any value judgments about Tarrants. Well, we’re all grown-ups here. If authors want to use ellipses in the way I’ve shown above, then that’s their choice. For what it’s worth, though, Tarrants are not really my cup of tea. Tarrants, particularly extended Tarrants, come across to me as somewhat melodramatic devices, for which reason I place them in the same category as one-sentence paragraphs, stacked one-sentence paragraphs, and rampant italics. When I come across a Tarrant, I suddenly become very aware of the writer and how he or she is attempting to manipulate me. It’s not that I mind being manipulated, but I do mind seeing the levers being pulled.

But, hey, live and let live. Which I bet isn’t what the sticklers reading this are thinking. If you’re a stickler, right about now you’re probably wishing that imaginary stick you’ve been stickling with is a real one you can use to beat authors like Mark Billingham into punctuational conformity. (We all know sticklers are stick-carrying referees at Cornish wrestling matches, right?)

As with anything, ellipses can be used in good ways and in ways that are not so good. Should you wish to see a master of the ellipsis at work, I recommend you read some Ian Rankin novels. (Yes, sticklers, I’m really suggesting you might want to go out of your way to see more ellipses in narration. You need the photo again? Sure, here it is.)

Tropical beach

Rankin is one of the best crime writers the UK has produced. He also likes the band Hawkwind, which makes me feel better than I otherwise would about my teenage infatuation with the space-rock combo. And the guy knows how  to wield an ellipsis. Writing in The Guardian about Fleshmarket Close, the 2004 instalment of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, said, ‘The reader is pulled in to the detective’s hunches by markers in the narrative – clues left by the author, we might say. We particularly know that we should feel for a deeper plot when there is an ellipsis, marked by three points.’

Look at that change in fortunes, people. A moment ago ellipses were basically described as cheap effects, but now they are being called ‘markers in the narrative’ and indicators that we should ‘feel for a deeper plot’ by a professor of English, no less. Context is everything, I guess. Here comes a hardworking ellipsis in a passage taken from Rankin’s Resurrection Men (2002). While Inspector Rebus is at a boring meeting, he loses interest in what’s being said and thinks about a case. I’m only going to quote a couple of lines either side of the ellipsis, by the way.

Five minutes into the lecture, Rebus let his eyes and mind drift out of focus. He was back on the Marber case . . .

         Edward Marber had been an Edinburgh art and antiques dealer. Past tense, because Marber was now dead, bludgeoned outside his home by assailant or assailants unknown.

Nice. That’s an ellipsis doing good work right there, smoothing the transition from a direct scene to a nugget of backstory. As those of you who’ve tried switching gears like that in your own work will know, it can be a tricky thing to pull off.

So, it turns out there can be an art to this ellipsis business. I know the sticklers are going to hate me for saying this, but we need to embrace our three-dotted friends, not fight them as if they’re a punctuational plague. Battling against them is a waste of time anyway, since in this particular case, not only has the horse bolted, but it left the stables about 20 years ago and died of old age before presumably finding its way into Ikea meatballs, if we’re to believe the reports in the British media. What I’m trying to say, sticklers, is it’s too late. The ellipsis infestation is here . . . to stay. You need the photo again?

Three dotsEDITORS’ HUDDLE: NAMING THE DOTS

Should we call what I’ve been calling an ellipsis ‘an ellipsis’? In the UK, it’s normal to do so. Things are a little different in the States, though, where our three-dotted friend is sometimes referred to as an ellipsis (see The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance), sometimes called ‘suspension points’, and at other times referred to as ‘ellipsis points’.

The Chicago Manual of Style makes a subtle distinction, saying dot dot dot should be called either ellipsis points or suspension points depending on its function (see rule 13.48). The manual rightly defines an ellipsis as an omission of text. Academic A quotes academic B in journal C and leaves out part of the quotation that isn’t relevant – that’s an ellipsis. Text has been elided; an elision has taken place. Words have been left out, to put it in plain English. When our three-dotted friend indicates an ellipsis, it should be called ‘ellipsis points’, not an ellipsis; an ellipsis is the thing ellipsis points signal.

Then the revered style manual appears to go a bit dot dot dotty.

When dot dot dot is used to indicate what CMOS calls ‘suspended or interrupted thought’, it should be called suspension points (13.48 again). But does CMOS really mean suspended or interrupted thought? Because though at first CMOS says suspension points should be used to indicate thought that’s suspended or interrupted, it switches to talking about using the dots to indicate ‘faltering or fragmented speech’ (my italics) in the rule, 13.39, where it expands on the pronouncement it makes in 13.48. Maybe CMOS meant to say both thought and speech.

In 13.39, CMOS appears to contradict what it says in 13.48 by stating that interruptions in thought are usually indicated by em dashes, not ellipses, a recommendation it indicates it talks about further in yet another rule, 6.84. But 6.84 talks about using em dashes for sudden breaks in thought, not interruptions.

And though CMOS goes to the effort of distinguishing between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48, it ignores the distinction in 13.39 when it says suspension points can be used to indicate an ellipsis.

This is all very, very strange.

The distinction CMOS makes between suspension points and ellipsis points in 13.48 is actually a good one. When dot dot dot is used in dialogue to indicate a speaker stops speaking for a moment, the author isn’t leaving anything out; instead, the writer indicates the speaker is taking his or her time to say whatever it is he or she has to say. Similarly, if someone doesn’t finish his or her sentence, and a writer uses dot dot dot to convey that, those dots don’t stand in for words that have been left out in the way that ellipsis points do.

The distinction may be logical and sensible, but personally I choose not to make it, since, as I said, we Brits call dot dot dot an ellipsis in all cases, and that works for us. Besides, if we started handing out names to dot dot dot for each function, we’d have to invent a lot of new names. Because our three-dotted friend does more than show text has been left out and indicate someone stopped talking.

Photos: © http://www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, messages attached to cats, smoke signals of the type that indicate pope-hiring decisions . . .

Need a Copy Editor for Your Novel?

Profile picIt’s important that you find a copy editor who’s right for you and your novel and with whom you have good rapport. Not all copy editors are the same, and not all offer the same service, so it’s a good idea to shop around and find someone who meets your requirements and with whom you can develop a good relationship.

I’ve been copyediting since 1990, and I’m highly skilled and experienced. I only copyedit fiction, and I edit between 20 and 25 full-length manuscripts a year. I work with debut novelists, bestselling writers and everyone in between. As well as working with independent authors, I copyedit for publishers.

If you are seriously considering hiring a copy editor to work on your novel and you’d like to try me out, ask me to copyedit some of your pages. I’ll edit them for free, without obligation. Send a Word document of between 10 and 15 double-spaced pages to mbtrower at yahoo dot co dot uk, and I’ll aim to get them back to you within 48 hours.

9 thoughts on “The Relentless Rise of the Dot Dot Dot

    1. Thanks for nominating me, and I’m so glad you find what I write about useful. I find myself editing a fair bit of sci-fi at the moment, so perhaps I’ll be drawing some blog inspiration from your genre in the future. Cheers!

  1. Pingback: Verbs for Carrying Dialogue: “Said” Versus the Rest | Commas, Characters and Crime Scenes

  2. Victoria

    Hi! I’m new to your blog and love it. There’s so much great advice. I especially loved the article about danglers.

    I have a quick question, though, if you don’t mind answering it, concerning a sentence in this entry:

    “An em dash is used to show an interruption, not an ellipsis.”

    This sentence confused me. It makes it seem like you’re trying to say “An em dash isn’t used to show an ellipsis” instead of “An ellipsis isn’t used to show an interruption”. Would this be an example of a dangler? This is the first time I’ve ever heard of danglers, by the way, so I’m still working on identifying them and I was wondering if the sentence above fit into that category.

    I’m guessing the first part of the sentence probably doesn’t qualify as a modifying phrase, so it might not be a dangler but it’s still confusing and can be misread easily. Is there another term that applies to these situations? How could it be fixed? Or is the sentence correct and I’m just completely ignorant? My apologies if that’s the case.

    Regardless, I think your blog is great. It’s truly helping me improve. Your advice on verb tags, commas with compound predicates, passive clauses and the correct order of actions has been incredibly helpful and fascinating to read. I also think you’re hilarious.

    Thanks for the help!
    Looking forward to your next post.

    1. Glad you like the blog and find it helpful, Victoria. Well, to answer your question, it certainly isn’t a dangler. I don’t actually think the sentence is particularly confusing myself, especially when taken in context, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing what you mean. I guess a rewrite would be ‘An em dash, not an ellipsis, is used to show an interruption.’

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