An elliptical approach to …

Posted on April 15, 2010


Somehow, the three dots fail to convey the nature of the missing part.

Recently I’ve been involved in an online discussion concerning the use of ellipses1.

Ellipses, according to any kind of professional standard, are the three little dots that replace missing words in quoted material. Despite the preponderance of contrary evidence available on the Internet, ellipses are not meant as replacements for the comma, period, dash, and every other form of punctuation.

When removing words, the rule is simple:  remove only those that are irrelevant to the primary meaning of the quote.

But — there’s “irrelevant,” and then there”s “irrelevant.”

For instance, in a story on Strickland Propane, Assistant Manager Hank Hill was quoted as saying:

“It was that tank over there that fell over … but we’re lucky we had the safety cap on, I tell you what.”

Mr Hill’s full statement was:

“It was that tank over there that fell over, and I’d just spent all morning wiping it down because it seems there just aren’t any teens these days who want to be a tank wipe, but we’re lucky we had the safety cap on, I tell you what.”

As you can see, the excised words do not affect the main thrust of Mr. Hill’s comment about the safety caps. The three little dots have no effect on the overall impact of the sentence.

Now compare this to a story on the spill at the Springfield nuclear plant. In it, Executive Assistant Waylon Smithers is quoted as saying: ”

It was a small spill, and the Springfield firemen … speedily contained it.”

In this case, the full statement was:

“It was a small spill, and the Springfield firemen, who were dressed in the same shade of yellow as Malibu Stacey’s ‘October Fun’ raincoat, speedily contained it.”

Once again, the excised words have no bearing on the quote, but somehow there is a world of difference between the two examples. A difference that three little dots do nothing to convey.

Obviously, we need a new typography:  a typography that could suggest to readers something about the nature of the excised words.

Fortunately, the actual typography has already been created for us in the form of emoticons.

While generally credited as the invention of semi-literate teens, the first entries into the emoticon vocabulary were actually provided by teletype operators decades earlier. Semi-literate teens just expanded on it in order to express such complicated concepts as “I’m happy” without having to resort to troublesome words.

Because of their relatively long tradition, the meaning of many emoticons are already familiar to the majority of readers:

:-) = Smile
:-O = Shock
:-/ = Bored
;-) = Wink
OGC = Masturbation (the “O” is the person’s head, the “C” his legs, and — well, the rest you can work out for yourself).

Now see how much more revealing the quotes are with the use of Ellipticons (as they will undoubtedly come to be called in future grammar books).

“It was a small spill, and the Springfield firemen :-O speedily contained it.”

“It was that tank over there that fell over, :-/ but we’re lucky we had the safety cap on, I tell you what.”

It is a system that would be especially useful to magazines which routinely publish artist’s statements. For instance, rather than printing this:

The artist said, “My recent work is an investigation of the mimetic process and excavation of the inheritance of the past, which seeks not only to unravel the threads of visual discourse, but also re-encodes ambiguity and authenticity by creating a conversation between colour and texture.” 2

they could print this:

The artist said: “OGC

Not only shorter, but way more accurate.

1. What I’m going to tell the aliens about peanuts and time when they come looking for Stephen Hawking in their spaceships at Too Many Mornings (comments section).

2. Thanks to The Artist’s Statement Generator from Gurney Journey.