Oh, those ideas that drift off into a fog, as typically happens when you encounter an ellipsis … .
Don’t worry if you have never wondered how anybody came up with those three dots (four if you are using them to end a sentence). Someone at Slate has done the worrying, the research and the writing to bring you up to speed.
As the article notes, the ellipsis is a strange creature because punctuation usually tells you something specific. It tells you whether you have just read a statement or a question. It tells you to pause while the sentence shifts into the next gear. It tells you that something or someone is very excited! But an ellipsis sort of says, “whatever.” It tells you that it’s not telling you everything.
The author of the piece, Cameron Hunt McNabb (which, of course, is exactly the kind of name you’d expect on an article about punctuation) notes that the earliest appearance of the three dots is in medieval manuscripts, usually underneath a word or phrase that has been copied incorrectly from somewhere else. Some medieval copy editor has come through, marked out the mistake and put the ellipses underneath to show that the blob of ink was intentional. Officially that’s called “subpuncting.” So if nothing else, you’ve learned a nifty new word today.
McNabb takes pains to point out that a handcrafted manuscript is not the same medium as a printed page. The printers grabbed the three dots and put them to a slightly new purpose, which is why they get a new name of “ellipsis.” But in both cases, they indicate the omission of something.
Probably the most creative use of ellipses (note the spelling of the plural) is in movie reviews. The reviewer may have written, “This film is astonishing for how bad it is. You have to see it to truly understand what a disaster the studio has unleashed on the unsuspecting public. The best I can say for it is that the actors said their lines without mumbling.” All it takes is a few clusters of dots, and you have a great blurb to put in your advertisement: “This film is astonishing … You have to see it… The best…”
Feel free to write in with reviews of this blog, by the way. I’ll pick out the best bits for my page of reviews.