Earlier this summer, Choire Sicha, the writer, editor, and co-founder of the Awl, came to an unpleasant realization. His emails, he noticed, had veered into the realm of the ridiculous.
“Suddenly, one day,” he recalls, “I was delivering drifting, whiny telegraphs instead of emails: ‘Hey… this is great… I don’t know when I’ll get to an edit but… one thing is you should think about the ending there… but maybe I’ll find one in the middle for you, so don’t worry too much…okay more soon!’ ”
Sicha, it turns out, had “picked up a really bad ellipsis habit,” an affliction marked by three circular black dots that tend to appear, well, everywhere; in the most severe cases, anywhere from four to infinity dots will become visible. “It got out of control,” he says.
If you’ve been there, you know Sicha’s tumble into ellipsis overkill is no picnic. First it’s just three simple dots every now and again. Then it’s six at the end of text messages. Soon enough your average email consists of 48 dots and zero complete sentences. (For those looking to learn the actual rules of ellipsis usage, the Punctuation Guide provides a useful, if incomplete, primer. In more formal writing, ellipses are often used to show omissions from within a piece of text; in casual communications, they are used a zillion different ways. Individual style guides offer differing rules regarding numerous elements of ellipsis usage.)
Sadly, the curious case of Choire Sicha is far from an uncommon scenario. Shortly after hearing from him and deciding to examine the issue more thoroughly, I received an email from a friend in Ohio that included two sentences ... and six dots: “I just got back from softball… we got CREAMED…” Surely it had to be a coincidence. Perhaps the message was an aberration, or a Baader-Meinhof–type recognition on my part. To the cellphone!
I scrolled through my text message inbox. Sure enough: ellipses everywhere! The most recent message was from my mom. It referenced a trip to Ireland by my aunt: “Got back last Saturday….they loved it!” A note from a friend, responding to a text asking whether he had any big weekend plans, followed: “No… Just the rib cook off tomorrow. Then house inspection on Sunday.… yay!” Another text near the top of the queue had been sent as a condolence of sorts for a loss by my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates: “Well, like you said….we can’t win ’em all.” I’ll spare you the rest, but nearly every message included ... ellipses.
There were ellipses used in lieu of commas. Ellipses as question-mark replacements. In some instances, it was ellipses instead of a single period at the end of a statement, or 10 dots spanning two lines on my phone’s screen. What a mess!
And yet at no point in reading the mom text or any of the others did I find myself confused as to what the message senders were attempting to communicate. So I decided to run a little experiment. One night I sent a bunch of potentially confusing, ellipsis-infused text messages to those I interact with regularly and waited to see what happened.
My wife was the first test subject. This was the message I sent her: “Clicker…any idea.” Alas, she knows me too well. She knows that I refer to the television remote as “the clicker,” and she knows that I am never quite sure where it is. In retrospect, there was no chance she’d be tripped up by that text. Her response: “Side of the peach chair.” (We have a peach chair?)
Next I sent an even vaguer text to my mom: “All Star Game………….” Who knows what I meant by that one. I didn’t, certainly. Sure, the All-Star game was on TV at the time, but beyond that, what was I getting at? Mom wasn’t fazed in the least: “I’m falling asleep…Really tired. Cutch struck out.” Four or five additional texts to assorted friends and family members resulted in similarly uneventful back-and-forth communications.
At no point did anyone reply with, “What the hell are you talking about?” or “Could you please give me a bit more information here?” And of course none of those folks mentioned anything about the ellipses. It would appear that when we are communicating with friends and others possessing the requisite context to understand our ellipsified ramblings, message recipients tend to make do just fine.
But that doesn’t mean using seven sets of ellipses to ask your roommate where he put the takeout menus is Pareto optimal. And it does nothing to explain why we all seem to be using these repeating dots so often.
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