25 April 2011

. . . (Ellipsis)


Cross posted to Black Gate.

Moving on from the em dash (—), my series on punctuation continues with a post guaranteed to leave you hanging.

The ellipsis, a.k.a. “those dots in a row,” are perhaps the most mysterious of the common forms of punctuation. The mystery begins in childhood, probably during a viewing of one of the Star Wars films, where a strange line of periods give the feeling of floating off into the story as the opening prologue crawl comes to an end. . . .

But it is not an end . . . because of those dots. . . . What do they do, anyway? How do I use them?

Well……….not like this……….

That was the first rule of ellipis (pl. ellipses) that I had to learn: how many of those damn dots are there supposed to be? To look at most Internet forums posts, where the ellipsis is more common than the word “the,” it would appear that some people have never learned the correct number of dots and instead lean on the period key and watch it repeat until they reach a level of satisfaction.

Rumor control, here are the facts: There are supposed to be three dots. And sometimes four, if coming at the end of a sentence with no other sentence to follow, as in the Star Wars example. In this case, one of the dots serves as the period on the sentence.

But much mystery still remains. How and when should you use these things? Is it three periods typed one after each other without break, or should there be spaces between them? Should the ellipsis character (…) be used instead?

I don’t have solid answers on most of these, and different style guides conflict. I understand the academic use of the ellipsis: it indicates where text has been removed in a quotation. Everything else . . . well, it all depends.

In fiction, ellipses are most often used for two purposes: 1) To indicate a pause, either in speech or in thought, in a similar fashion to an em dash, but with more of a sense of hanging and space. 2) To trail off at the end of paragraph or chapter to indicate a moment of suspense; i.e. Star Wars. Another use the pops up now and then is the ellipsis placed at the start of a paragraph or chapter, indicating that the audience has walked in on a continuing moment. I don’t see this one too often, but I enjoy it.

In most cases, I prefer the em dash to the ellipsis. The em dash take up less space on the page, looks “cleaner,” breaks harder. The ellipsis is something to be used rarely so that it has a weightier dramatic effect. Then there are situations when no other punctuation feels right to indicate a pause. Other times, I fear overindulging in em dashes and lean on the ellipsis for variety. Unless I am using ellipses academically, they are the most “gut instinct” of punctuation for me.

Another reason for my allegiance to the em dash over the ellipsis is typographical. This brings up the issue of “how should an ellipsis be written?” With most proportional fonts, it is best write an ellipsis as periods with a space before the first one and spaces between the others. The spread looks about right . . . like this. However, this leads to an annoyance when the ellipsis spills across the end of the page, and you’ll have one or two dots “hanging” at the end of the line, with the rest orphaned at the beginning of the next line. I hate how this looks; you don’t see this in professional publications. I usually ignore the issue on until I have to print something for some professional purposes, and then I go through the document and punch in a few extra spaces before the offending ellipses so they move over to the next line. For this purely mechanical reason, I prefer to use em dashes. If a petty reason helps me make a punctuation decision and hold to it, so be it.

(Given the amount of ellipses-with-spaces I have written in this post, a few will probably end up “hanging” at the edge of the screen. Please adjust your browser window for maximum elliptical comfort.)

Some style guides recommend typing the periods without spaces between them, or using the single character ellipsis (“Option + ;” on a Mac keyboard), especially for wider fonts. Ellipses in Courier New definitely look better without spaces. But for the majority of fonts, the spaced-out ellipses look the best.

When used well, ellipses creates hanging tension, the a sense of spring coiling, or just relief from em dashes. I could open most books and flip through a few pages and find an example. Okay, first book I reach for: The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean.
Mallory whistled softly to himself. This was more than he had ever dared hope for. They had still to escape the net of searches, still to reach the fortress, still to get inside it. But once inside—and Panaysis must know how to get inside. . . . Unconsciously Mallory lengthened his stride, bent his back to the slope.
This is an interesting ellipsis, because it purposely contrasts with the preceding em dash. When my eye came to the em dash, which indicates a parenthetical thought, it expected to see another em dash conclude it. Instead, MacLean uses an ellipsis with a period to show that Mallory’s mind has triggered concern and is unable to finish the thought because it concerns him. An em dash would not have conveyed the same concept.

From Fritz Leiber’s short story “The Man Who Never Grew Young”:
To the south the Aztecs took up their glass knives and flint-edged swords and drove out the . . . I think they were called Spaniards.
Leiber uses ellipses infrequently, and so the appearance here shows how much his narrator really needed to stop to think before moving on. His em dashes are used mostly for parentheticals, so the ellipsis here gives a real sense of pausing.

Ellipses being misused? One example comes to mind with eldritch speed—and from an otherwise superb story. I’m picking on a big fellow here, Mr. H. P. Lovecraft, but dialogue wasn’t exactly his strong point, and I think he knew it. Here are more ellipses than you can ever use, wheezed out in surprise near the climax of “The Colour Out of Space”:
“It come from that stone . . . it growed down thar . . . it got everything livin’ . . . it fed itself on ‘em, mind and body . . . That an’ Mernie, Zenas an’ Nabby . . . Nahum was the last . . . they all drunk the water . . . it got strong on ‘em . . . it come from beyond, where things ain’t like they be here . . . now it’s goin’ home. . . .”
In On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King picked out another ellipses-overjoyed passage from this same story as an example of how not to write dialogue. “Folks, people don’t just talk like this, even on their deathbeds.” True enough, although my issue here is with the ellipses, not the clumsily handled backwoods diction. This is too obviously gasping, and the ellipses are so overwhelming that they end up deadening their own purpose. Moderation is the key, with the addition of a few shortened sentences and a spice of em dashes.

And while I have this Lovecraft volume open, let me present one of the most hilarious uses of ellipsis to indicate a character getting cut off in the middle of writing as he is dragged off by a monster, but still scribbles away to the last dot! From his revision story for William Lumley, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”:
Too late—cannot help self—black paws materialize—am dragged away toward the cellar. . . .
Now that is a dedicated diarist.

But, to excuse one of my favorite writers (and even he didn’t think much of “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”), the ellipsis in this sentence is used well, changing the rhythm from the em dashes. Notice in both examples that Lovecraft has correctly added a period to the ellipsis, making four dots to indicate a concluding sentence. I’m so pleased that Alonzo Typer still had the fortitude, as the monstrous black paws dragged him off to his hideous death, to obey correct rules punctuation.

I have to wrap this up now, and . . . wait, something monstrous, hideous . . . beyond belief . . . is banging down my apartment door . . . coming for me now . . . great squid-like tentacles . . . am dragged off to laundry room . . . must add starch. . . .