The ellipsis in medieval manuscripts: How subpuncting in the Middle Ages give the modern era its strangest punctuation mark.

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Aug. 17 2016 9:30 AM

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers

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In medieval manuscripts, we find a mark—sometimes called subpuncting or underdotting—that is used to indicate the omission of a word or phrase.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The punctuation mark of the ellipsis is perhaps the most unusual mark in the English language, for punctuation marks are designed to convey meaning by indicating relationships between ideas, but the ellipsis does the exact opposite. It simply indicates that something has been omitted. Sometimes, this omission is poignant, as in J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament “I grow old...I grow old…” which invites the reader to imagine what has happened to the him in the spaces between him growing old. Sometimes, it is simply a placeholder, as happens when a fellow messager is typing on the other end of the line. (Personally, my favorite example of the ellipsis is Seinfeld’s infamous “yada yada yada,” but I digress.)

But where did the ellipsis come from and how did it end up being so unusual? The Guardian’s article on the history of the ellipsis draws on Anne Toner’s fascinating book Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission to explore ellipses all the way back to the drama of the 16th century. Both the article and the book do an excellent job of analyzing these earliest print records of the modern ellipsis.

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But that story may not be the whole story, for the dot dot dot of an ellipsis was no stranger to English texts before the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson. It might have just been serving a slightly different function.

In medieval manuscripts, we find a mark—sometimes called subpuncting or underdotting—that is used to indicate the omission of a word or phrase, usually when that word or phrase has been copied erroneously. This omission mark involves placing a series of dots under the word that is to be omitted. The image below shows an erroneous word, blotted out and subpuncted:

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The British Library Board, Harley MS 6258 fol. 45r

A scholar of medieval manuscripts, David Wakelin, conducted a study on how popular various methods of omission and correction were based on a sample of 9,000 manuscripts at the Huntington Library. He found that “crossing out, subpuncting, or erasure” accounted for 25% of the corrections he found. He does not provide a percentage of subpuncting alone, but it does occur in a variety of manuscripts, particularly those in the 14th and 15th centuries. Wakelin notes that subpuncting begins to die out in the early 16th century, and Toner picks up on the rise of the ellipsis in the late 16th century.

Could the two be related?

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It is possible that the omission mark of subpuncting and the modern ellipsis stem from two different sources, with them serendipitously looking similar and subpuncting coincidentally fading away in manuscripts around the same time that the ellipsis is introduced in print. But it is also possible that the medieval practice of subpuncting provided a ready-made punctuation mark for new printers. One reason that no scholar has yet to answer this question is that there is a sharp divide between the two periods and mediums in the field. By and large, medieval scholars focus only on manuscripts (things written by hand), up through the first half of the 16th century, when manuscript writing decreased (but by no means disappeared). Similarly, early modern scholars generally focus only on printed materials, from the second half of the 16th century onward, when printing began increasing rapidly. Wakelin’s and Toner’s books are an examples of this division: Wakelin explicitly sets his own date range in his book’s title, Scribal Correction and Literary Craft: English Manuscripts 1375-1510 and focuses only on manuscripts, while Toner begins her research in the late 16th century and only on printed texts. It is important to note that such omissions on either’s part are by no means a fault, though, as both are analyzing thousands of extant texts already. To complete something even more comprehensive would be extremely daunting. But, regardless, there is a gap between these two studies, an ellipsis in the scholarship, if you will.

But even if we do not know exactly if and how subpuncting and the ellipsis are related, they share a similarity in their functions. In both cases, they are used to omit meaning.

The word’s origins in the Greek ἔλλειψις mean “falling short, defect,” but the ellipsis also becomes associated with omission fairly early in its history. For instance, Quintillian, with the linguistic confidence only a Roman could exude, says that an ellipsis marks “the omission of words that can be recovered verbatim by means of contextual information.” Quintillian envisions the ellipsis more as an abbreviation than a defect. However, the Oxford English Dictionary’s more modern definition highlights the mark’s inherent instability: An ellipsis implies “the omission of one or more words in a sentence, which would be needed to complete the grammatical construction or fully to express the sense.” In this sense, the ellipsis is defective, or falls short, because it inherently brings a gap in meaning.

Both subpuncting and the ellipsis indicate a falling short or a defect in the text, but they do so in slightly different ways. Subpuncting tends to preserve the original erroneous word, similar to how strikethrough works in modern typographical settings. In both medieval manuscripts and on modern computers, deleting the erroneous word is an option; however, subpuncting and strikethrough allow for the word to simultaneously remain and yet be omitted. Grammatically, it allows you to have your cake and omit it too.

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Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 201 fol. 50v

But the ellipsis omits meaning by removing words entirely, with no way of knowing what is absent. For an analogy, an ellipsis in a sentence is like a hole in a mathematical equation. In fact, ellipses are used in mathematics to indicate missing terms, such as in a sequence (1+ 2+ 3…+100) or in matrices, math’s paragraphs. But sometimes an ellipsis omits meaning that was never there in the first place. This occurs when the mark is used at the end of a sentence to signal a forced or intended silence (called aposiopesis). In Toner’s words, the sentence “lapses into silence.”

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The British Library Board, C.34.k.17; King Lear 1st quarto 1608

But numbers lapse into silence, too, and in mathematical notation, an ellipsis is also used to indicate that the decimals of an irrational number will trail off to infinity, with no discernible pattern. For instance, if one were to write out the number pi, it would end in an ellipsis: 3.1415…. In this case, the ellipsis indicates an omission of both some known terms (we know the digits of pi far beyond .1415) and unknown terms (since the sequence proceeds to infinity, we cannot know all of its digits).

Thus the ellipsis has been used to indicate anything from the erroneous to the irrational, and its intrigue lies in resistance to meaning. As long as we have things to say, we will have things to omit. Or, in other words, yada yada yada.

Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor at Southeastern University, where she specializes in medieval and early modern literature.