17 May 2008

Dot Dot Dot

You folks have probably figured out that PUNCTUATION WEEK at Oz and Ends is really an excuse for me to grouse about the deficiencies of my word-processing program or common glitches I see in manuscripts. But why stop now? Today I address the burning question of ellipses!

When a character is interrupted or breaks off suddenly, that character's dialog should end with an em dash (or its equivalent), as in the alleged last words of Union general John Sedgwick:

"They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist--"
(I'm annoyed to see that, according to Wikipedia, Sedgwick got that whole sentence off--twice!--and only then was felled by a Confederate sharpshooter. The dialog is much more dramatic with the interruption, isn't it?)

On the other hand, when a character's speech trails off into silence, or the narrator doesn't care to pay attention any more, a writer should use an ellipsis, which is Greek for "three little dots."
"No, Mommy, we're not sleepy at..."

"And so, as I wrote on this next slide, the incremental increase in the past fiscal quarter is greater than the corresponding quarter of last year, but smaller than the intervening..."
Every so often I see a new writer tempted to stretch out an ellipsis into four or five periods, apparently to indicate more time passing. That's not standard yet, which means that it's wrong.

Scholarly writing makes a useful distinction between two types of ellipses. That style uses the traditional three periods (or, in proportional typefaces, one ellipsis mark) when a quotation is missing a phrase from within a sentence.

And there's what I'll call (in allusion to James Thomson's "Seasons") a "long ellipsis": three periods with spaces in between them to indicate when a sentence or more has been removed.

I'll take an example from Boston 1775, a quotation from Prof. David Blight, Director of Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, on the recent legend of a "quilt code" on the Underground Railroad:
The reason your student is not finding primary material on quilting in the Underground Railroad is because in all likelihood there isn’t any. This is “myth” of the softest kind that serves the needs of the present for people who prefer their history as lore and little else. . . .

The quilt story...will survive and thrive as long as it serves real needs in the desires many people have from history--to convert tragedy into something triumphal, suffering into progress, complexity into curiosity, nitty gritty social and political history into material culture we can touch and see.
The first, long ellipsis represents the removal of more than a sentence. (Since it follows a period, the result is four spaced-out dots. But that's the maximum number of dots a writer can pile up.) The second, short ellipsis in the second paragraph occurs within a single sentence.

Tendentious scholarly writing, defined by a previous version of the MLA Style, requires that ellipses added by the writer be signaled with brackets: [...]. Most fields outside literature don't deal with texts that already have their own ellipses, so readers in other disciplines can basically assume that all ellipses have been added by the present writer.

Once again, I suspect, British typesetting is different from American. Some styles dictate a space on either side of an ellipsis mark, and no distinction between the long and short forms.

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