We Need to Talk About Ellipses

“Colonial discourse takes over as it takes cover.”

An ellipsis, like grief
, calls attention to the presence of an absence. It can can do so in a couple of different ways. It can help a sentence trail off suggestively, opening the reader’s mind to thoughts unexpressed or still to come.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 3.25.38 PM

Katy Waldman, at Slate, describes it this way:

The three dots extend from the end of the phrase like a ledge into the surrounding silence. They co-mingle the thrill of possibility with the fear of irresolution. Who can say what varmints lurk, what vistas shimmer, to the right of those humble stepping stones? Who can say if there’s anything there at all?

In academic writing, though, the basic job of the ellipsis is to fill in for a missing chunk of text in a direct quote. This gives it, along with the quotation mark, a certain moral weight–it’s punctuation with a conscience. After all, an unscrupulous writer can butcher a quote in a way to make its originator appear to say anything.

I’ve sometimes wondered, then, why an ellipsis is used when leaving out the middle of a quote, but not the beginning of one. Other clues stand in for it, I suppose–quotation marks appearing in the middle of the sentence, brackets around the first letter of the first quoted word, etc.–but they don’t sufficiently highlight the fact that the writer has cadged the original subject.

The most egregious and chronic example of such a practice popped up in a recent attack on identity politics by Carrie Sheffield, at CNN:

And rather than demonizing white men, it’s worth asking Pelosi how her comment about “five white guys at the table” squares with Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Sigh. Here we go again…

I assume the quote they’re getting wrong is from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which what he actually said was this:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged  by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Not the same thing. Abstracting King’s specific subject into a vague universal, and without saying so–i.e. without using an ellipsis–is not merely dishonest: it’s an act of rhetorical violence. The strategy of universalization involves laying claim to the lived existence of another, and is often a form of silencing. (See, e.g., #AllLivesMatter.) Native American author Sherman Alexie said it best during an interview, in answer to a question about “universal” values in his work:

“I don’t want to be universal. ‘Universal’ means white people get it.”

A lot of my students use ellipsis when quoting the second part of a sentence. Up until recently, I’ve told them it’s not necessary. And, in fact, the web site The Punctuation Guide explicitly says, “It is rarely necessary to use ellipsis points at the beginning of a quotation, even if the quotation begins mid-sentence.”

Well, I think it’s high time we started demanding them, if only to preserve the conscience of that particular piece of punctuation.

One thought on “We Need to Talk About Ellipses

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