Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dot Dot Dot to Death

This post last appeared 12/2/2008 and deals with one of my favorite (or should I say least favorite) subjects: the overused ellipsis.

A comment on the chat line citing the overuse of ellipses just sent me whirling! This is negative with me as well, and as I mentioned in a previous post, will contribute mightily to a submission going into the NO pile.

My Webster’s says an ellipsis “indicates an omission (as of words) or a pause.” Probably most writers insert the ellipsis to show a pause, but after seeing those little dots fifteen or twenty times on a single page, I begin to wonder what is missing. Perhaps the thing that is missing is effective writing.

Sure, in a dramatic scene one can see how the ellipsis adds tension, conveys a distraught person’s dialog or disjointed thoughts. In examples where one character’s speeches are laden with ellipses, but none of the other characters have such a halting style, the use seems forgivable, as it goes to shape character. But if most or (perish the thought) all the characters have the dots, it comes off jerky and uneven, and in my opinion indicates lazy writing.

Here’s a way to validate the idea that you really don’t need all these dots: thumb through a book by your favorite author. How many do you see? Just for grins, I fanned through several Robert B. Parker novels (one of my favs and a writer notable for his dialog). I spotted only a few ellipses per book.

Overall, I think ellipses do more to “tell” than to “show” and I certainly know what they tell me!
Billie Johnson, editor & publisher, Oak Tree Press
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  1. Exactly. It just looks like the writer can't think of anything to write, basically -
    'you get the idea'-
    'well, no, we don't that's your job.'

  2. I agree that ellipses are overused in contemporary fiction. They are just like every other writing tool, effective when used sparingly but tiresome when overused. Thanks for pointing that out, Billie.

  3. Between ellipses and em dashes, punctuation has gotten out of hand.

    I admit to using both of these crutches a lot on my pop culture blog and in my early drafts. I try not to censor myself in early writing, but they definitely come out in revisions.

  4. I never use them and most of the authors I read do not use them-just checked .......oh,by the way.....couldn't really think of anything there.

  5. True. I don't see many of those dot, dot, dots in published books.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. Dear Blood Red
    Mosttimes I use ellipsis to signify a pause for the reader ... to allow them to absorb what i just have shown them.
    And oh by the way... you ask one to turn to their favorite author to check out the use of the three dots as punctuation. Well my editor-ial friend... it is rare for the masses to see first or second drafts. It has been widely circulated and verified by his own writings that William Somerset Maugham used hyphens and em dashes exclusively for his punctuation. Maybe he, like I have an inborn mistrust of editors, because it took me nearly 25 years to find one that helped me write better, rather than one who would rewrite my already well chosen words.
    Since I have found an editor who practices edification of author instead of education of grammar... my life has has become much happier and less ellipses laden. Indeed... I married her.

  7. Billie,
    You've hit me with a reminder of one of my bad habits. As others have said, though, I work at eliminating ellipses and m-dashes when I edit, but you'll see too many of them in my blog and comments.

  8. Well ... I guess that explains why my books end up on the slush pile.

  9. Thank you for this post. I've often wondered about how many or how few ellipses and em-dashes are acceptable, and no one's been able to give me a straight answer before.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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