By Matthew J.X. Malady
NEW YORK — 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.)
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.
On the surface, the rise of ellipses doesn't make much sense. They don't generally provide any sort of typing shortcut. Aside from when the shift or alt keys are involved — or when a new character screen must be accessed to type a mark using one's phone — ellipses often require more key strikes and time than the alternative punctuation they are intended to replace. Plus, in most instances, we tend to prefer punctuation that is, first and foremost, clear. Ellipses, at least as they are used in text messages and emails and other forms of online communication appear to offer the opposite of clarity.
So if ellipses aren't shortcuts, and they aren't especially clear, what's going on here?
For Clay Shirky, an author, scholar and New York University professor who studies the effects of the Internet and technology on society, the flood of ellipses is one signifier of a unique and interesting moment in the history of written language. He suggests ellipses are most often used as replacements for pause words such as um and uh. So, he says, "people are communicating like they are talking, but encoding that talk in writing." For the majority of history, he adds, written words were drafted to be read much later, which led people to compose their thoughts in the form of full sentences.
"Now, though, much of what is typed is for swift delivery and has more the character of speech, where whole, unbroken sentences are a rarity," Shirky says. "Speech is instead characterized by continuous flow, with lots of pauses, repeats, false starts . . . and pauses to indicate changes in direction. We're living in a moment a bit like Alexander the Great's time, when he adopted the altogether remarkable habit (or so Plutarch reported) of reading silently. The relationship between the alphabet and talking was progressively broken as people learned to sound things out in their heads. Now we're seeing a moment of reversal, where people are trying to use alphabets like we're talking, and it's . . . hard. So we reach for the ellipsis."
When queried about his ellipsis overuse, my friend on the terrible softball team — who is also a professor in the communications department at a large Midwestern university — went even further in connecting the dots to speech. He said he uses ellipses mainly because they help him feel as though he's engaged in a more dynamic written conversation — with the ellipses serving mostly as intentional, meaningful pauses. "It's largely a preference for what seems like a more dramatic way of presenting something," he says. "When I'm writing my friends, I see that writing more as I would in conversation with them: more intimately, more expressively, usually with pauses for facial contortions and intentional negative spaces. On the phone, enough of the elements of in-person conversation are present that we can imagine what the person looks like on the other end. But email, and even texts, are so cold this way."
For Sicha, there was something else at play when he was typing all those dots, though. "It was a way to write lazy emails, honestly, without having to think about syntax or relation of each sentence to the next," he says.
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.