Ellipses and I

ellipses-mainI have been thinking about the changing nature of the ellipsis as a grammatical device.

A few days ago, I was going over a draft of a graphic novel I am about to send to the publisher. It is called Angelitos, and it is about a Mexican priest who devotes his life to protecting homeless children. I had written two versions, one in Spanish and the other in English, about a year ago. I had put them aside to simmer. When I looked at them again, I was struck by the abundance of ellipses in the two versions.

The protagonist is a passionate yet hesitating young man. In the dialogue I used the ellipses to convey his uncertainty. Now I had doubts about my strategy.

I realized, first, that the ellipsis is a relatively recent phenomenon (there are none in the Hebrew bible, for instance, although contemporary Hebrew does use them), and second, that different languages, verbal and numerical, use ellipses in different ways.

In Chinese, for instance, they are made of six dots divided into two subgroups of three, although sometimes, to shorten communication, people resort to only one subgroup. In mathematics the ellipsis can be used to mean “and so on,” communicating the repetition of a pattern. And then there is literature, where the ellipsis often conveys omission, as in “The region of … is full of unicorns.”

In the two versions of Angelitos, my ellipses were consistent with Spanish usage. Called puntos suspensivos (suspension points) in Spanish, the device, as in French, implies doubt, is synonymous with et cetera, or suggests either silence or speechlessness.

In comparing the Spanish and English versions of Angelitos, it became clear to me that I didn’t know to what extent English followed those rules. Since I have lived in the United States since the mid-eighties, this discovery made me feel as if the road of assimilation, which has transformed me deeply as a person, is really never-ending. Although I’m a teacher, and have published a plethora of books — several  of them translations — I had never stopped to think about the nuances of the meaning of the ellipsis in the two languages.

So I embarked on a comparative study.

What I found out was enlightening. According to the language historian Anne Toner, in her book Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission, the first appearance of the ellipsis in English dates back to 1588, in a translation by Maurice Kyffin of Terence’s adaptation of the Greek play Andria. She makes this point forcefully, but to me it seems like finding a needle in a haystack. Equally difficult to explain, other than blaming it on Darwinian evolution, is how, by the 19th century, the three little dots had become a fixture of the Queen’s English.

The word “ellipsis” comes from Ancient Greek ἔλλειψις, élleipsis. In English nowadays, an ellipsis might appear in the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. It can be preceded by a period or appear as four dots with added space between them. It shows up with spaces before and after the three dots or without them. The MLA and Chicago Manual of Style offer dissenting views on its usage. You may find it in parenthesis or in between brackets. In other words, its use is elastic: It might suggest further thought, condense a list or quotation, or simply mean blah-blah-blah.

It looks to me as if the biggest difference with Spanish is that in English the ellipsis doesn’t connote doubt … or does it?

One of the most intriguing components of my study pertains to social media: In texting, the ellipsis is used to hold one’s attention; that is, to announce that there’s more is to come, to politely change topics, or to stress anger, disagreement, or bewilderment.

And of course, there are myriad ways of misusing ellipsis in texting. Some of these, it goes without saying, are a sign of the user’s age. This was made irrevocably clear to me when my 20-year-old son, Isaiah (who goes by Zai), a student at Kenyon College, told me recently that my texts are both too formal and too idiosyncratic.

To prove his point, he showed me an exchange between his friends Z and D: Z had just bought two tickets for a soccer game and invited D to the event. But D has more in her mind than a simple no: “are u comin” Z asked. “maybe … ” responded D.

“You follow, Pa?” Zai asked.

I said not quite.

“Look, when texting you can use ellipses to mean a thought is unfinished. But people inject tone to that unfinishedness. In the example I showed you there is a difference between ‘maybe’ and ‘maybe … ’ The former denotes doubt, even uncertainty: D is unsure of her schedule. The latter is a step further: D is withholding specific information. The ‘maybe’ is actually an ‘I have something better to do.’”

Zai went on: “You, Pa, write a text that says, ‘I need to think about it … ’ Nobody else texts that way anymore. It’s enough to say ‘I need to think about it’ without even a period at the end because the period itself might entail anger. You only put an ellipsis if you’re keeping something to yourself, some strategic information you don’t want your correspondent to have. Get it?”

Well, sort of. Honestly, I was more confused than ever. Later, when I got back to the English version of Angelitos, every ellipsis, no matter its placement, suddenly seemed suspicious. There are stark differences between Spanish and English rules, I kept saying, but languages are by definition fluid, and rules are created to be broken.

Life is what happens outside an ellipsis. In any case, I ended up scratching out about 90 percent of the ellipses in the graphic novel, maybe more, in both the English and the Spanish versions. Why leave that much room to uncertainty, to speechlessness, to bewilderment?

My protagonist was now more certain of himself than before.


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