It’s time to kill the ellipsis.
Those three little dots had a hell of a run. But through the last week of poring over impeachment inquiry transcripts and learning that lawmakers and government officials spent inordinate amounts of time uncovering the precise meanings of ellipses in the transcript of Donald Trump’s infamous Ukraine call, it became clear: This virtuous, multifaceted punctuation mark has outlived its usefulness. The era of fake news and unrelenting deceptions was too much for our triplicated periods, which couldn’t handle the pressure. They cracked. They failed.
They have to go.
Let us pause to thank the ellipsis for its service. It appeared on the scene in the 16th century, just 100 or so years after the Gutenberg Bible, which revolutionized print culture in the West. Since then it’s been used:
to eliminate words in a direct quotation;
to indicate a pause;
to indicate a trailing-off;
in magazine gossip columns as a dividing mark between topics;
in emails from your grandparents, as a substitute for every other blessed punctuation mark;
and on your iPhone, to indicate that someone is typing you an iMessage but oh my god they’re not done yet, what on earth could they be typing that’s this long, wait did they start typing and then go away, why haven’t they finished yet, now the ellipsis went away and they didn’t send the message, I guess that means they hate me, and now I hate the ellipsis.
Heavy lifting, to be sure. But the testimony transcripts released last week reveal that the Ukraine call’s ellipses created only confusion—and perhaps deliberate deception.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified that, according to his recollection, the ellipses in the call transcript sometimes replaced very important words (such as “there are recordings”), sometimes replaced unimportant words, and sometimes replaced nothing at all. (Side note: Vindman also wins the award for best grammar joke of the impeachment inquiry so far. Commenting on the reportage of The Hill’s John Solomon, who helped spread the false narrative about Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s work in Ukraine, Vindman remarked that “all the key elements were false” in his work, but nevertheless “his grammar might have been right.” Zing!)
Fiona Hill, Russia policy specialist on the National Security Council, got into both ellipses and the Oxford comma on Pages 306 and 307 of her testimony—the latter seemingly for no reason whatsoever other than that the House Intelligence Committee’s senior investigative counsel was curious about her comma preferences (not that you can blame him). But she cops to using ellipses for many different purposes — just because she likes them.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the ellipses,” she testified.
And there’s the problem. Key to the impeachment inquiry is knowing exactly what was said and by whom. Our other punctuation marks — the versatile em-dash, our bookish brackets, the pretentious but lovable semicolon — all do the yeoman’s work of adding precision to our language. They’ve been reliable since Gutenberg. But the ellipsis has taken on so many roles that in any given sentence, we don’t know what it’s doing: adding color or taking away detail? Concealing or revealing? If it takes a congressional hearing to understand a punctuation mark, the mark isn’t performing its job.
Step aside, ellipses. You have failed us.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and period-dots to firstname.lastname@example.org.