There’s not a lot of love going around for the passive. The list of those who’ve given it a mauling includes George Orwell, Strunk and White, and Stephen King. But is it really such a bad thing to use in fiction specifically? And do the people who criticize it always know what they’re talking about?
Be Your Own Copy Editor #10
A piece of writing advice that circulates and circulates is that you should avoid using the passive. American writers and editors in particular will recognise this injunction. A highly influential source of the advice is Elements of Style, by William Strunk and EB White – ‘The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,’ they write. Elements is not particularly well known on this side of the Atlantic, but in the States it is considered by many to be a writing bible, and Time says it’s one of the 100 most influential books written in English of the last 90 years.
The list of passive aggressors also includes George Orwell, who, in an essay written in 1946 called ‘Politics and the English Language’, tells us to never use the passive where we can use the active (if you don’t know what either ‘passive’ or ‘active’ means, don’t worry, because I’m going to explain later). But he shoots himself in the foot somewhat by using the passive when he tells us to avoid it (‘the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active,’ he complains apparently without any irony whatsoever).
However, there doesn’t appear to be much discussion out there about whether it’s a good idea to use the passive in fiction specifically, though I notice that in On Writing, which talks about fiction-writing craft, Stephen King directs a few hard punches towards the passive’s solar plexus, equating the passive with timidity, safety, passivity and terrorism. (Okay, I made that last bit up.) Whether or not its use in fiction is discussed much, I suspect many fiction writers have been conditioned to believe the passive is a bad thing while passing through the higher education system, since you don’t have to dig hard to find an incredible amount of hostility being directed towards it by those marking student essays.
What makes discussion about the passive a little difficult is that a lot of the people who talk and write about it wouldn’t actually know what a passive-voice clause looked like if it hit them in the face – and that includes academics, writing tutors, self-appointed writing experts and a few editors, judging by the misinformed discussions I’ve seen about the passive on the Net. Often people don’t recognise it when they see it, or they see it when it’s not there. There are a fair few misconceptions and misunderstandings about the passive, such as the belief it can only be formed with the verb to be (actually, to get is used a lot, and to have and a handful of other verbs can feature in passives in certain situations) and it gives a formal tone to writing (‘Vince got his chest waxed’ is formal?). All of this means that before talking about the virtues or otherwise of the passive in the context of writing and editing fiction, I’ll need to establish what it looks like.
I’ll break the passive down into two similar but different types. To identify passive-voice clauses of both types, we need to take a close look at verb phrases. When I use the term ‘verb phrase’, I mean a verb string, such as could have been drinking in ‘He could have been drinking antifreeze for all he cared,’ or was trying to sober up in ‘He was trying to sober up.’ (Note that the term ‘verb phrase’ has a different meaning in linguistics from this one, which comes from the world of teaching English to speakers of other languages. Also note that neither example sentence is written in the passive voice.)
What we’re looking for in the verb phrase to identify a passive-voice clause of the first type are two things combined: a penultimate verb form that’s a form of either the verb to be or to get, and a past participle as the final verb form.
A form of to be or to get + a past participle
Let’s clarify what past participles look like. As labels go, ‘past participle’ is a pretty bad one, since past participles are not always used to talk about the past. However, it’s the term everyone uses, so we’re stuck with it. If you look at a verb table of the type that foreigners use while studying English, you will see three forms are always given – and the last is the past participle. For example, the past participle of the verb to mug is mugged (mug, mugged, mugged), and the past participle of to know is known (know, knew, known). (In case you’re wondering, the first of the three verb forms is the base form, or infinitive, and the second is the past-simple-tense form.)
So, in the sentence ‘My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona,’ the following is a passive-voice clause:
My mother was mugged . . .
We know it’s passive voice because it meets our criteria: we’ve got a past participle at the end of the verb phrase (‘mugged’), preceded by a form of to be or to get (‘was’).
My mother was mugged . . .
to be + past participle
A passive-voice clause needs a grammatical subject, too – which it has in our example clause (‘My mother’).
My mother was mugged . . .
Subject + to be + past participle
We can form a passive of this type using the verb to get as well.
My mother got mugged while visiting Barcelona.
Subject + to get + past participle
Notice how using to get instead of to be gives a more colloquial sentence.
So, to reiterate, the combination we’re looking for is the following:
Subject + to be or to get + past participle
Incidentally, my mother really was mugged in Barcelona. A thief riding on the back of a scooter tried to wrench her camera from her. She wouldn’t let go of the camera strap, and she was dragged along the road for a while. But she’s okay now, thanks – this happened a long time ago.
Often the form of to be or to get will be right next to the past participle, as in the example clauses above, but not always. Sometimes an adverb or two will get in between them – for instance, ‘viciously’ in the following:
My mother was viciously attacked while in Barcelona.
Subject + to be + adverb + past participle
I’ve used simple sentences with simple verb phrases for the sake of clarity, but of course verb phrases can be more complex. The italicized parts of the following example sentences are all passives:
My mother has been mugged only once in her life.
My mother could have been mugged again if she hadn’t decided afterwards to keep her valuables in the safe at the hotel.
My mother would never have been mugged if she’d kept her camera in her bag.
My mother is definitely not going to get mugged when she visits Lisbon, because she’s much more aware about safety now.
Let’s now compare the active with the passive so that we can see the difference between the two. Here’s an active-voice sentence:
The police later caught my mother’s mugger.
In this sentence, the grammatical subject, ‘The police’, is performing the action of the verb – catching my mother’s mugger. This is therefore an active-voice sentence. The subject is in the doing role. By contrast, in a passive-voice clause such as ‘My mother was mugged’, the receiver of the verb action, the person or thing having something done to him or her or it, my mum in this case, is the subject. (Note that we have to be careful about saying verbs express actions, since sometimes they don’t.)
I would hazard a guess that the passive structure I’ve just outlined is the main one stalking the highways and byways of written English. It certainly appears to be the one people who talk about the passive have in mind. There is another fairly prolific type, though, and it never seems to get a mention – the have/get something done structure.
With this type of passive, usually either the verb to have or to get is used in the penultimate-verb-form slot, and to be is never used. Here is an example:
Tina got her roots done yesterday.
In that sentence, we’ve got a subject (‘Tina’), a form of to get (‘got’) as the penultimate verb form in the verb phrase, and a past participle as the final verb form (‘done’). But the big difference between this type of passive and the first type is that a noun phrase (‘her roots’ in this instance) interrupts the verb phrase, coming immediately before the past participle.
Tina got her roots done yesterday.
Subject + to get + noun phrase + past participle
Here is the sentence using the verb to have:
Tina had her roots done yesterday.
Subject + to have + noun phrase + past participle
Note how informal sounding this second type of passive can be. Here are some further sentences written using the have/get something done structure:
Jeff and Gemma are getting their conservatory built by an amazing Polish builder.
Winston has his dreads done by a barber over in Elephant & Castle.
Rita is having her car MOT’d next Monday.
It would be wrong to say that what I’ve given you is all you need to know to recognise the passive, but it is a lot of what you need to know. If I were trying to give a complete picture, I would point out a few more things. First, with the first type of passive, sometimes the verb in the penultimate-verb-form slot is left out. Imagine, for example, the newspaper headline ‘Marcus’s Mother Mugged in Barcelona’. That’s a passive with ‘is’ omitted: ‘Marcus’s Mother [is] mugged in Barcelona’. Second, you’ll occasionally see the have/get something done structure used with verbs other than to have and to get – for example, to see in ‘I saw this guy beaten to death right in front of my very eyes.’ Third, in English dialects, present participles can be used in the past participle slot to form a passive, usually in association with the verb to need – for instance, ‘This cheese needs eating before it goes off’ is a passive (‘eating’ is the present participle here).
I learned those last two things while researching this blog – they were news to me – thanks to the writings of Geoffrey K Pullum, who is professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and the scourge of anti-passive propagandists everywhere. If you want to get a black belt second dan in the passive voice, I suggest you read this article of his, though unless you’ve studied linguistics, you’re likely to find it a challenging read. In fact, award yourself a black belt third dan if you can assimilate everything he says.
Is there a place in fiction for sentences like ‘My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona’ and ‘Tina had her roots done yesterday’ and ‘This cheese needs eating before it goes off’? Of course there is. The passive has a legitimate place in writing in general and fiction in particular, and it most certainly has a legitimate and important place in writing and talking about crime.
Crime novelists naturally reach for the passive when they don’t want to reveal who did something – a murder, say. Imagine the following sentence near the beginning of a crime story:
Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy.
We have a passive clause there – ‘Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered’ – and the person who killed Jemma, whom we can refer to as the agent of the action, murdering Jemma, isn’t mentioned. The above sentence is a very natural one for a crime novelist to write. If the sentence were written in the active voice, making the agent of the action the subject of the sentence, the denouement of the entire novel, who killed Jemma, would be given away:
Caretaker Jason Stephens murdered schoolgirl Jemma Richards while she was on her way home from North Grange Academy, the school he worked at and she attended.
‘Great,’ says the reader, ‘I’ve only got to page 8, and the author has already told me who done it. May as well put my Kindle down and get to work building that winter shelter for feral cats I’ve been putting off.’
The original sentence, ‘Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy,’ would also be a natural one for a newspaper reporter to include in a news story. Imagine Jemma’s body was found yesterday, and the police don’t yet know who murdered her. In this case the passive is used partly because the agent of the action is unknown.
Schoolgirl Jemma Richards was murdered while on her way home from North Grange Academy. In a statement, West Mercia Police asked anyone who witnessed any suspicious activity in the streets around the school between 4 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. yesterday to contact them.
But note that not mentioning the person or thing that performs a verb action isn’t a defining characteristic of the passive. We can reveal the agent of an action while using the passive voice:
Jemma Richards was murdered by caretaker Jason Stephens while she was on her way home from North Grange Academy, the school he worked at and she attended.
Writers naturally reach for the passive when they know the agent of an action but don’t want to give that person or thing top billing in a sentence. Let’s return to the sentence about my mother getting mugged to clarify that point.
My mother was mugged while visiting Barcelona.
I don’t actually know who mugged my mother, though I could’ve found out at the time, since the guy who did it was arrested soon after. But finding out who mugged my mother didn’t seem important to me and still doesn’t, since I was – and am – more concerned about her than I am about the mugger. The sentence above reflects that, putting my mum in the spotlight there at the beginning of the sentence while not even mentioning the mugger. Imagine if I did convert that passive-voice clause into an active-voice one, giving the mugger – whom, as I said, I don’t know from Adam – top billing (and a made-up name):
Oriol Penlaver mugged my mother while she was visiting Barcelona.
A reader would ask, who is this Oriol Penlaver guy? Is he some kind of super-thief? Should I have heard of him? Suddenly Oriol is in the spotlight rather than my poor mum, whom Oriol dragged behind his scooter while stealing her camera, for crying out loud.
One of the silly things that anti-passive propagandists do – actually, I’ve been somewhat guilty of the converse in this blog – is invent a daft passive-voice sentence as an example of why using the passive is so very wrong. They parade a sentence like the following, to jeers and catcalls from readers:
The ball was kicked by the boy.
Then, to cheers, they restore sentence-level feng shui:
The boy kicked the ball.
This kind of thing is plain stupid and doesn’t relate to real-world writing. The passive doesn’t exist only in relation to the active, and the active doesn’t exist only in relation to the passive. They’re just different, and we use them at different times for different purposes. If English is your first language, it’s highly unlikely that you ever think about whether to use the passive or active voice while writing a sentence in your novel. You don’t wake up in the morning, yawn, stretch out your arms and think, I really want to write a passive-voice clause today. Or, while at your keyboard, think, I’ve written four active-voice clauses in a row. Perhaps I should now follow them with one written in the passive. You just naturally select the passive voice when it can perform a function that you want performed in a particular passage. Same goes for the active, of course.
In my day-to-day copy editing, I don’t actually come across many occasions when I need to pick up an author on his or her use of the passive. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I suspect the reason the passive isn’t much of an issue isn’t that the writers I work with have already purged their paragraphs of sentences like ‘The bar was gone up to by Jake, and a Rolling Rock was ordered by him,’ converting them into the active (‘Jake went up to the bar and ordered a Rolling Rock’). When I do come across a passive-voice clause that doesn’t seem to sit right, I usually point out that there’s nothing wrong with using the passive per se, just that in this particular instance using it might not be a good idea.
What I occasionally see and flag – and what you might want to look out for as you edit your novel – is a passage like the one that follows. Imagine a private investigator called Arturio visits a mansion. He’s come to interview a rich playboy called Gerald, who may be involved in an insurance fraud and subsequent murder.
Arturio knocked on the door, then stood back, with his hands in his pockets. The door was opened. Arturio went in and waited in the hallway. He could hear someone coming down the stairs.
Our passive-voice sentence here is ‘The door was opened,’ and the problem is that readers are going to wonder who it was who opened the door. There’s a little hole in the narrative. This could actually be fixed while still using the passive – ‘The door was opened by the maid’ – or an active-voice sentence could be used: ‘The maid opened the door.’ Note how the first revision brings the maid into the story but keeps the focus on the door, while the second brings the maid into the spotlight.
I suspect writers write sentences like ‘The door was opened’ in the context above because they feel that if they bring the maid into the story, they will have to describe her and develop her as a character, when what they really want to do is get Arturio in the same room as Gerald with minimum fuss, because that’s the scene that’s going to move the story forwards. It’s a valid concern. If you write the same scene in the way that follows instead, you’re creating the expectation that you’re going to develop the maid character, and readers will feel short-changed if you don’t.
Arturio knocked on the door, then stood back, with his hands in his pockets. The maid opened the door. She was wearing a pink hoodie with ‘Babe’ written across the chest and grey tracksuit bottoms, had her hair tied back in a ponytail, and was holding a damp cloth in one hand. Arturio went in and waited in the hallway. He could hear someone coming down the stairs.
What’s the answer? You could describe the maid, as I’ve done above, and go on to develop her as a minor character, or you could accept that sometimes it’s okay to write a bland, functional sentence like ‘The maid opened the door’ – if that’s your idea of a bland sentence.
But context is everything, and sometimes you might want that hole which the passive can give. Imagine Arturio is being forced at gunpoint to go into the mansion, and he doesn’t know who or what lies in wait inside.
Arturio felt the barrel of a gun digging into his lower back as he stood in front of the mansion. The front door was opened – by whom, Arturio couldn’t see. ‘In,’ ordered the guy behind him with the gun.
In that case, the fact that it’s not clear who opens the door adds to the tension and gives the reader the feeling that he or she is really seeing the scene unfold from Arturio’s perspective. In terms of POV, this scene is written using third-person close, and use of the passive helps create narrative intimacy with our viewpoint character, Arturio. Contrast that passage with the following:
Arturio felt the barrel of a gun digging into his lower back as he stood in front of the mansion. A six-foot, 250-pound gorilla with ‘Hate’ written across the knuckles of both hands opened the door.
In that instance, I’ve created a feeling of menace by describing the thug as physically large and by suggesting he’s aggressive. But would Arturio really notice the thuggish guy’s tattoos and evaluate his height and weight during the second in which the gorilla opens the door? It seems unlikely, and it reads like that information is instead coming directly to the reader from the narrator. We’ve lost the feeling that we’re seeing the scene unfold through Arturio’s eyes.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.)
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?
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 . . .