Interpreting something from nothing is miscommunication

| Monday, July 29, 2013
This article from Slate caught my attention:
What the ...
Why everyone and your mother started using ellipses ... everywhere.

First off, I'm not a fan of over-ellipsification. This is mostly because I'm a judgmental jerk. The dots feel lazy, as if the person writing them didn't bother to complete their thought. They feel stupid, as if the writer could not complete their thought. They feel hostile at times. Consider the following exchange:

Pretty dull, isn't it? Let's try this one.

Now that's exciting! Maybe that second person is backing away slowly. That's what I'm picturing. Maybe they're reaching for their mace (I will hit you with said mace if you criticize my use of "they" as an ungendered singular). On the other hand, maybe they're purring it seductively, in which case, use the phrase "purring seductively" rather than ellipses. And then stop writing talking cat porn because that's weird.

In general I'm opposed to the "writing as speech" notion. Speech is allowed to be vague for two reasons. First, there is body language. Second, there is immediate feedback from the reader. Writing has neither of those. Obviously the body language is a lost cause outside of a few smilies, which we should use more often, but don't, as you can see demonstrated here. The quick feedback is also a lost cause, for two reasons. First, written communication is meant to be understood (Captain Obvious is guest writing this sentence), which should mean that the writer writes it well, but in practice often means that the reader feels dumb. Second, the response is going to be delayed. The person writing text-as-speech is probably distracted by something more interesting than you, such as crashing their car.

The dot dot dot also tends to break up the writing. It's not a substitute for the ums and uhs. Those aren't supposed to be in text at all. They're not in verbal speech! Oh, you think they are? When we talk we ignore all of those, recognizing that they are not thoughts, ideas, or feelings. Of course if there are a dozen uhs in a row we'll notice that since it's a sign of something wrong with either the idea or the person's mental state (flustered, not crazy). Injecting all those pauses into written speech means putting them straight into our heads, bypassing the filter that would normally get rid of them.

If you practice for a presentation what is the primary piece of feedback you'll get? Odds are, it's to stop saying um so often. It makes you sound like you're unsure of yourself and your knowledge. It makes you sound disorganized and confused. Why would you intentionally add that in to your writing? You might as well just preface every message with "I have no idea what I'm trying to say, but here are a bunch of letters, some of which might form words, but which should not be interpreted as actual thoughts."

Trying to sound stupid is useful at times, such as during comedy or a Senate hearing (either side), but it shouldn't be a standard of behavior.

Onward to the article. Here's what stood out for me.
So I decided to run a little experiment. One night I sent a bunch of potentially confusing, ellipsis-infused text messages to those I interact with regularly and waited to see what happened.

[writer's note: at this point I would normally use ellipses to indicate that I'm taking nearby, but not quite continuous blocks of text, but I was worried that it would look like I or the writer were using ellipses. See how everything has been ruined?]

Next I sent an even vaguer text to my mom: “All Star Game………….” Who knows what I meant by that one. I didn’t, certainly. Sure, the All-Star game was on TV at the time, but beyond that, what was I getting at? Mom wasn’t fazed in the least: “I’m falling asleep…Really tired. Cutch struck out.” Four or five additional texts to assorted friends and family members resulted in similarly uneventful back-and-forth communications.
At no point did anyone reply with, “What the hell are you talking about?” or “Could you please give me a bit more information here?” And of course none of those folks mentioned anything about the ellipses. It would appear that when we are communicating with friends and others possessing the requisite context to understand our ellipsified ramblings, message recipients tend to make do just fine.

 Did you catch it? He sent a message that was meant to communicate nothing, yet he got a response. It's a Rorschach text dot test. I've just coined that phrase, by the way. Take the ellipses and fill them in with anything. Have back and forth exchanges in which you say nothing, yet somehow think that you did.

 I don't think that ellipses are a bad idea. That dot dot dot can be effective, in certain situations. Someone does or says something dumb. Sure, you could put in all the effort to say how dumb they are. Or you could just send a dot dot dot...


Azuriel said...

Although this post has made me hyperaware of each instance of my recent ellipsis usage (say that 5 times fast), I'm not sure there is another way to get across the feeling/emotion I'm usually trying to convey at the time. Which is itself a sort of "I'm not sure if this is the right answer but I'm writing it anyway" situation. Example:

"But if you are already spending 20+ hours on a single life only to die in some asinine way... well, what’s the point of trying again?"

Another example:

"In the Olde Days, it was a choice between blogging, forum posting, or... nothing."

In the first case, I may have been able to just put the "well" in a comma sandwich, but it does not feel the same. Typing out "uh" in the second case would be worse, whereas eliminating the ellipsis entirely makes the sentence more forceful than intended.

Is it lazy writing? Maybe. Then again, the only way I'm able to "check" my writing is speaking it out loud and trying to notice if anything sounds "off." In which case the (implied) ellipsis is exactly what I would be using.

Klepsacovic said...

I don't think I can criticize either of those examples. The triple dot does stretch things a little more than a comma, which is useful, sometimes.

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