I love an ellipsis. Those three little dots can say so much by saying absolutely nothing (and yes, it should be three, unless you’re writing in a Chinese language and in that case it’s six). It’s mysterious, suggestive, and comes from the Ancient Greek élleipsis (ἔλλειψις) meaning “omission”. It’s a piece of punctuation that everyone seems to be embracing on social media. But, like the exclamation mark, is it losing its impact by being overused?
We all know to avoid excessive use of exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like “laughing at your own joke”, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yes, they have their place (“How wonderful” without an exclamation mark is just sarcastic), but scattering them everywhere suggests a lack of confidence in your own tone. It can be handy to show someone that you’re not being serious; however if you look at Facebook or Twitter, or read back through your emails, the use of an exclamation mark to show that you’re joking has been largely replaced by that winking little emoji. So, we’re cutting down on the exclamation marks –and I for one have certainly found some new punctuation to replace it…
See, I just can’t help it. I automatically stick in an ellipsis to try and create some suspense in a sentence that frankly is not suspenseful. I’m quite restrained with their use in my professional writing, but I trawled through my personal Facebook posts, and my page is so littered with little dots that it looks like it has measles. I need to rein them in.
However, if you want to indicate an unfinished thought, trail off into silence, or leave the reader to form their own conclusion, there is nothing better. It can also be naughtily suggestive. Anyone else remembering the scene in Mama Mia where the girls read Meryl Streep’s old diary and giggle at the “dot dot dots”? (If that’s too shallow, think of Mr Fitzgerald again, and his use of ellipses in The Great Gatsby.)
So when should we use them? To convey a tailed-off thought or add suspense, as already mentioned. They are used in dialogue (see James Joyce), and to condense quotations (I use them when editing client testimonials). In social media, they can be the written equivalent of a raised eyebrow, and we see them used to punctuate an enigmatic post (“Some people are just so rude…”). They can be great for comic effect, and for a pithy “you can guess the rest of the story” caption for a photo. And of course, there’s always that like flurry of excitement when you see those three little dots wiggling, and you know that someone is about to reply to your message… The ellipsis has become a part of modern social communication.
Before writing this, I spent a bit of time on Facebook and Twitter looking out for those little dots, reading posts from people I don’t know as well as my contacts – and people are using them lots. They are embracing them in funny, cheeky and clever ways that definitely add something to what they’re saying. So, the ellipsis is definitely being used – but not, I feel overused.
Next time – the semi-colon, and does it do anything apart from wink…?