Posted by on August 2, 2013
Aug 022013

I understand the complaint. It is a lazy leveling to substitute ellipses for commas, periods, question marks, and any number of other punctuation marks. The practice transforms potentially well denoted text into prattling, though often still intelligible, mumble. In other words, it transforms text into a representation of our actual, everyday speech.

The proliferated ellipsis is, in this way, comparable to the quotative like. She said introduces a representation of her words. She was like introduces a representation of the embodied performance of her words. More than merely quotative, like initiates a dramatic portrayal. Said does not and cannot accomplish this simulation. Goes is like’s only true rival for this effect.

The ellipsis does not precisely do for text what like does for the spoken word. Rather than vocally simulate actual spoken performance, it textually simulates imagined spoken performance. Directing the reader to enact, if only in his imagination, a verbal performance that exists as fiction, the proliferated ellipsis is more akin to stage direction than grammatical punctuation.

Even as a grammatical mark the ellipsis punctuates without puncturing. Like the period it leaves off, but unlike the period it does not conclude. The em dash leaves off as well, but it does so by interrupting and aborting. Ellipses, however, bridge and abridge by omission. Breaking off and connecting and continuing all at once, ellipses elide. The period is life’s steadily realized course, the em dash its untimely rupture, the ellipse inhalation’s animating pause.

All this the old three-dotters knew. The mark of Caen was and remains a mark of informal rapport. Bound off from the formality of the surroundings, their prose violated public writing’s customary formal register. It winked when it was supposed to bow, and it was delightful in this transgression. But what they did once by design to portray the lively flow of familiar repartee, we do now by flat indifference. We have lost the sense of transgression.

Never sure in English, formal and informal registers are today collapsing. The proliferated ellipsis is a symptom of this collapse. All contemporary speech, even formal speech, even writings intended for public consumption, settle into ramshackle informality. When rigged together with ellipses, we are prone to say, text seems more alive, more dynamic, more immediate. But what we mean is that it seems more authentic to quotidian reality.

If we should bemoan the debased condition of contemporary writing, and we should if only because it results from such insensible carelessness, then should we not also bemoan the debased speech that this writing aims to dramatize?