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July 30, 2013

A plague of . . . ellipses!

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

I scrolled through my text message inbox. Sure enough: ellipses everywhere! The most recent message was from my mom. It referenced a trip to Ireland by my aunt: "Got back last Saturday . . . . they loved it!" A note from a friend, responding to a text asking whether he had any big weekend plans, followed: "No . . . Just the rib cook off tomorrow. Then house inspection on Sunday. . . . yay!" Another text near the top of the queue had been sent as a condolence of sorts for a loss by my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates: "Well, like you said . . . . we can't win 'em all." I'll spare you the rest, but nearly every message included . . . ellipses.

On the surface, the rise of ellipses doesn't make much sense. They don't generally provide any sort of typing shortcut. Aside from when the shift or alt keys are involved — or when a new character screen must be accessed to type a mark using one's phone — ellipses often require more key strikes and time than the alternative punctuation they are intended to replace. Plus, in most instances, we tend to prefer punctuation that is, first and foremost, clear. Ellipses, at least as they are used in text messages and emails and other forms of online communication appear to offer the opposite of clarity.

So if ellipses aren't shortcuts, and they aren't especially clear, what's going on here?

For Clay Shirky, an author, scholar and New York University professor who studies the effects of the Internet and technology on society, the flood of ellipses is one signifier of a unique and interesting moment in the history of written language. He suggests ellipses are most often used as replacements for pause words such as um and uh. So, he says, "people are communicating like they are talking, but encoding that talk in writing." For the majority of history, he adds, written words were drafted to be read much later, which led people to compose their thoughts in the form of full sentences.

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