ellipsis

Sometimes you get to some words you just want to… you know… go around. Throw the reader a curve, maybe. Overlook some shortcomings. Stay in orbit around a point, or circle rather than land, if you get my…

Leaving out words may seem a bit dotty to some, but it’s downright dashing to others. And historically, dashes showed up a bit before dots to indicate omissions; they’re still used for parts of words (“What the f— did D— T— do now?”), but by the early 1700s the dots were remorselessly supplanting them to encode elision. (If you want to know their whole history, with as little omitted as possible, Anne Toner wrote a book about it.)

But let’s get around for a moment to how this function (and its dotty indicator) is called ellipsis, or in plural ellipses, which is also the plural of ellipse. Are ellipsis and ellipse related? Sure, they’re really the same word originally. And does that mean that ellipsis got its name from going around? No; rather, the ellipse got its name from coming short. The Greek origin is ἔλλειψις, which is the noun form of ἐλλείπειν (elleipein), which means ‘come short’ or – by extension – ‘omit’. It’s not that an ellipse comes short of being a circle; rather, it comes short of the slope of the side of a cone. You have to picture this in three-dimensional geometry: get a cone, and slice through it at an angle not as steep as the side but not as flat as the base (in other words, slice on a bias through an ice cream cone), and you will see an ellipse. (If you slice through it at a steeper angle than the side, you get a hyperbola. Remember: ellipsis is the opposite of hyperbole, at least in geometry but also in many other ways.)

Ellipsis in words is not quite so geometric, however, and trying to tie the function of the three dots to conic sections might lead to circular reasoning. It just happens to use the same word to indicate omission (by the way, elide is unrelated; it comes from Latin meaning ‘strike out’).

There are still debates about how to handle ellipses. As far as Microsoft Word is concerned, if you type three periods they should automatically become a single Unicode character… But as far as the Chicago Manual of Style is concerned, when I edit your book, I’m supposed to go through and replace all those with spaced periods . . . (and if the end of a sentence is involved, add a fourth. . . .). Other guides take various positions.

And how may you romp in the elision fields? Many authors (including sooooo many people over a certain age on Facebook) like to use them just to seem conversational and not to close off discourse (“So good to see you… you look so happy, LOL… wish you could join us here…”). Some well-known novelists used them for similar effect, but more literarily; the French novelist Céline is especially noted for it, in his case almost the literary equivalent of puffing a cigarette while talking. Normally in fiction the three dots indicate that speech has trailed off (whereas the dash indicates that it has cut off abruptly: consider the difference between “Why don’t you…” and “Why don’t you—”). But in nonfiction, they more often indicate that something has been left out of a quotation.

And just how it has been left out, well… There are rules about that, or at least established standards. You don’t have to put an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quotation, even if it picks up and leaves off mid-sentence. But anything taken out of the middle requires one, and if you leave off in the middle of one paragraph and pick up in the middle of the next, you will need two with a paragraph break in between. And it is uncouth to use it to cause two strings of words that are far apart to seem connected (“To be or not to be, that is the question: Whether . . . conscience does make cowards of us all”), or to otherwise change the tone or tenor (reducing, for instance, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” to “To every thing there is a season . . . a time to heal . . . and a time to build up”). And it is really quite out of the question in polite, responsible company to use the movie poster ellipsis, which can change “an astounding avalanche of bad taste that left me speechless with dry heaves” into “astounding . . . left me speechless!”

Which means that the subterfuge in this poem from Songs of Love and Grammar is thoroughly outré. But it wouldn’t be worth a poem otherwise:

Ellipsis that shall never touch

“Dot, Dot, Dot,” I asked my belle,
“will you stay and love me well?”
“Darling,” she said, “I’ll . . . be true;
there’s nothing that I’d . . . rather do.”

“Dot, Dot, Dot, please let me know,”
I asked her, “if our love will grow.”
“My dear, your words are . . . so sublime;
we must together spend . . . sweet time.”

“But Dot, Dot, Dot,” I said with doubt,
“I sense that you’ve left something out.”
“My words are true, where’er they fall;
not less, not less, I’ve told you all.”

And when she’d spent my funds and left,
’twas then that I, morose, bereft,
saw Dot, Dot, Dot’s words reconciled
and knew how I had been beguiled.

Although the words of truth were there,
her ellipsis spoke unfair;
not, less, not, less, had been estranged
and by mean dot, dot, dot exchanged.

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