Recently it struck me that I have been using ellipses (. . .) quite a bit in my informal writing. Like most people I compose at least a few emails each day and while, by most standards I am an infrequent texter, I do send out a modest amount. In both of these formats I’ve been dot, dot, dotting left and right. And after sharing this observation with a few people and following up with a quick search on Goolge it became clear that I wasn’t alone. The ellipsis is the darling of new media. So this led me to wonder if there was some significance in this grammatical development, or if it was just some combination of convenience and coincidence. An intuition of sorts formed in my gut telling me there was something deeper going on. So why is it this particular mark of punctuation has suddenly become so prominent?
Within the world of emails, texts, and chat rooms a certain grammar has evolved. It’s not the King’s English, but it isn’t quite anarchy either. Rules and established usages have emerged, and within this emerging grammar the ellipsis functions in certain defined ways. For example, it can signal that the sender is still awaiting a reply after an unusually long break in a text exchange, as if to say “Still waiting . . .” Or, it can signal that another text will follow to complete the present thought, “Hold on, more to come . . .” And in some other cases still it may be used to express awkward silence . . .
As I kept thinking about my own use of the ellipse I realized I was also using the dots in some more subtle ways. For example, Seinfeld came to mind. This isn’t all that unusual, after all the show about nothing sometimes appeared to be about everything. So it struck me that the dots sometimes functions in much the same way as the phrase “yada, yada, yada” made famous on the sitcom, as a way of saying “etc. etc.” with a certain bored indifference. At still other times I was using the ellipsis as a stream of consciousness device, stringing together thoughts that may not be formally or self-evidently related, but that nevertheless flow one from another in some weird associative way . . . in my mind. And as that last line suggests, sometimes one may use the ellipsis, as my wife noted, as a way of getting the reader to read in a dramatic pause, often for comedic effect.
All of these ways of using the ellipsis, however, were not getting at my gut instinct. These were all still fairly utilitarian uses of the mark, but I sensed that something more was going on. I suspected the dots somehow signaled some shift in our way of thinking and expressing ourselves, that perhaps it was a symptom of our cultural condition surfacing through our writing. Then it dawned on me. I realized that at times I used the ellipsis to communicate a certain vagueness and ambiguity in what I was saying. I used the dots to convey hesitancy and indeterminacy. It was the mark of a thought that refused to assert itself.
Classic example: On Facebook, where ellipses run wild, I might post a link on someone’s wall with the note, “Thought you might like this . . .” If you were to put what the ellipsis communicates into words you would get,
Thought you might likes this, maybe you will, maybe you won’t, I’m not too sure exactly, actually I don’t like it so much myself, well maybe a little, but don’t think me stupid if you don’t like it …
The ellipsis gives expression to a habit of ironic detachment and preemptive indifference. And here is where I found the point of contact with larger cultural trends. The mood of ironic detachment that has settled over so many of us was manifesting itself in three simple dots. With those dots we were evading conviction, giving off an apathetic vibe, and guarding ourselves from seeming unfashionably earnest.
Thinking about the ellipsis brought to mind a performance by Taylor Mali, “Speak With Conviction.” It’s meant to be heard so watch the video below, but here is the part that comes to mind:
Declarative sentences … so called, because, they used to you know … declare things to be true … ok … as opposed to other things that are like totally … you know … not … They’ve been infected by this tragically cool and totally hip interrogative tone … as if I’m saying, “Don’t think I’m a nerd just ‘cuz I’ve like noticed this okay … I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions … I’m just like inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty …”
In writing the ellipsis captures nicely the tone that Mali identifies and lampoons in his performance. These three dots are the punctuation mark of an indeterminate age. We are becoming Eliot’s hollow men and this is the way each thought ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.
I think . . .
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