How to misuse your ellipses and infuriate your readers

Have you ever imagined that something as seemingly trivial as a punctuation mark could completely change not only the meaning, but the entire tone of a sentence? Sure you have.

As an example, consider the ellipsis. You know, this thing:

First, let’s establish what an ellipsis is properly used for. You can use it to abridge a quote as long as you retain the meaning of the original. If you’re writing dialogue, you can use it to indicate that the speaker is trailing off or that his statement is left hanging without an immediate response. If you’re writing dialogue for a JRPG, you can use an ellipsis on its own to indicate that a character is brooding and doesn’t want to respond to another character’s questions, or that he’s secretly a bad guy posing really unconvincingly as a good guy, which will be revealed by the game long after you’ve already figured it out on your own.

Set aside the usual questions of whether the periods should be spaced and how many there should be (common usage says three dots, but some style guides like the Bluebook dictate four.) Those rules aren’t all that important. What is important is the meaning of the ellipsis, both intended (by the writer) and perceived (by the reader.) This mainly comes up in writing meant to directly communicate information and ideas – personal emails and messages, office correspondence, etc.

An embarrassing example

Let’s look at an example sentence, first with standard punctuation and then with an ellipsis shoved in its place. In this scenario imagine the person being spoken to has just had his secret collection of My Little Pony dolls discovered by his girlfriend and she told their mutual friends about it (Note: this is not me I’m talking about. I just have some friends with strange interests.) In an email to said guy, one of the friends in question writes:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird.

A direct statement that seems to mean what it says. Nobody in their common social circle thinks the My Little Pony-having guy is weird. This statement may not be believable, but at the very least we can infer that the writer himself doesn’t think his friend is weird.

Now compare the above statement with this one:

Don’t worry; nobody thinks you’re weird…

Suddenly the tone of the statement has changed. Those two extra dots suggest the friend is trailing off here, that he doesn’t actually believe what he is saying. Perhaps he’s being sarcastic. Or it could be that he’s serious, but he is dismissing Mr. Pony’s anxiety here as silly. Another possibility is that the writer really does mean what he’s saying, but he simply doesn’t understand that the ellipsis here throws the meaning of his statement into doubt. Therefore, the use of an ellipsis here changes “Nobody thinks you’re weird” from a direct statement of fact or opinion to a statement that could mean a few different things depending on how the writer meant the ellipsis to be read. Even if, objectively speaking, the person on the receiving end should rightfully be ashamed of his actions, this kind of confusion is still a very bad thing.

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests.  But I still don't understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing.  It's one of those ironic hipster things, right?

Okay, I really have no place to talk considering some of my own weird and severely nerd interests. But I still don’t understand the whole adult guys watching My Little Pony thing. It’s one of those ironic hipster things, right?

You see how frustrating the ellipsis can make simple communication? You don’t even have to be a grown man who watches shows for little girls to suffer the ill effects of such confusion. Texts and emails dealing with business matters can, if they use ellipses recklessly, actually hurt business. Clarity in language is vital, especially when you’re trying to get things done.

So what’s the message here? If you don’t want to come off like a passive-aggressive prick, don’t use ellipses to end your sentences. They are not substitutes for periods. When used in place of periods, they cause confusion, frustration, anger, hurt feelings, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Have respect for punctuation. Use ellipses where they’re actually needed – otherwise, give them a break. And if you happen to be a serial ellipsis misuser, it’s not too late to repent your ways.

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