To Beat a Grammarian: Ellipses

To Beat a Grammarian: Ellipses

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The ellipsis is a handy little tool in a writer’s repertoire, but far too often, it is used incorrectly. Personally, it is one of my favorites, added along next to the dash. It gives a little twang and uniqueness to sentences that any other punctuation mark can’t do—all things in their place and such. So let’s check it out.

The first common misstep with most writers is that they use it too much. Like any punctuation mark—save the period—too much ruins a good thing. Think of exclamation points. Think of dashes. Think of any writing that falls into a repetition. Sometimes, it can create a feeling; other times, a disaster. Hopefully, you will develop your skill at telling which situation you are in.

So how do you use it? What is it exactly for?

1) Hesitation

This is clearly something useful. Most of the time, we see it in dialogue or, if written in first person, it will be in the text as well. A nice ellipsis can hint to the reader a weakness the speaker or narrator has, or a secret they are hiding. Remember, movies and books are different, so to get that little nudge or even a tweak of character to shine through, the ellipsis is a nice go-to. Check it out.

He turned to her. “I…I didn’t want it this way.”

Or

Walking down the platform, I wasn’t paying attention to anything, and then…there he was.

In both situations, it adds a little to each. The first shows pause, regret; while the second shows shock and suddenness. Here, it is used well, but look below what happens if too much.

He turned to her. “I…I didn’t…not this…never this. It’s not…not what I wanted.”

With this, we see the overuse changes the character. He appears weak, not rueful. And though it may be used as a character trait, most of the time, it is best to shy away from this kind of speech. It gets annoying fast.

Another misstep perpetrated by certain authors is a sort of ellipsis echo. They will repeat the prior word with each ellipsis. This gets grating instantly. One book I recently read had characters often speaking in this way and I nearly threw the book across the room. Unfortunately, it was an e-book. So I didn’t. Here’s an example.

“Look! I…I didn’t…didn’t know the cup…cup was yours.”

When using the ellipsis, you can have a slight repetition, like the ‘I…I didn’t…’ but having every other word repeat is exhausting on the reader. It looks more like a stutter than hesitation, so be careful.

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2) Missing Information or Trailing Off

I often use it in this manner. I will have characters that are indecisive or conniving speak with ellipses. It reflects greatly their feelings and their nature.

“I just thought, hey, if mom never finds out, then…” he said, shrugging.

or

“I realized early on you were never going to pull the trigger. So I had to take things into my own hands. I had to…well, I have a feeling you already know.”

Hopefully, this has made it a bit clearer for some of those over-users out there. I think one big cause for misunderstanding springs up from the misconception that speech should sound as real as possible. It should—but not that real. The ellipsis is awesome to simulate authentic speech, but try to refrain from all the hemming and hawing most of us do. A simulation is what you’re aiming for, not an exact copy. Even the most famous paintings aren’t usual exact replicas. It’s the faux exactness, the near authenticity that makes it inspiring. So keep that in mind when employing ellipses.

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