Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission
Cambridge UP, 2015
What sorts of beauty do we find under a magnifying glass? The precision and balance of the foliate patterns in an illuminated manuscript. The deep colours of a semi-precious stone. The complex designs made by the veins of a leaf. But, what do we lose? An entire passage of scripture. The stone itself. The bough, the bark, the tree. A detail may reveal a thing’s essence; but with equal likelihood it may distract from a thing’s larger significance. Any reader of Anne Toner’s Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission (2015) will inevitably put undue pressure on these questions. Do we gain anything by such detail-oriented scholarship? What do we lose? Toner’s book, like John Lennard’s (her PhD supervisor) But I digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse (1991), is certainly the type of scholarship done under a magnifying glass; and, both Toner and Lennard have had their share of critics as a result. If their intention is to fetishize punctuation at the expense of the meaning or spirit of the texts in which they feature, then, perhaps the criticism is deserved. But in my view, neither one of these works devolve into fetish-worship. Rather, they encourage a positive refocusing of critical attention. They successfully jar the reader out of his or her complacent disregard for the ordinary (punctuation). As Toner’s analyses of Ben Jonson, Samuel Richardson, Lucy and John Aikin, George Meredith suggest, they reveal the critical potential of a detail, and do so with only the occasional lapse into the completely banal…
Toner’s study is largely a historical overview of the development of the ellipsis in its many uses and forms (as hyphen [- – – ], dash [—], asterisk [***], and point […]). To the detriment of her work, any critical analysis that is not historicized is left to a bare minimum. Toner begins her history with the earliest use of the ellipsis in English literature: the 1588 edition of Terence’s play, Andria (trans. Maurice Kyffin). The mark appears in the work three times. In the first two instances, the speaker is interrupted by another character. In the last instance, the speaker interrupts himself. The ellipses, here, signal a dramatic lapse into silence precipitated by either an external or an internal interruption: the mark was innovative. Until the 16th century, printers restricted themselves to three punctuation marks: the full stop, the comma, and the question mark. In the 16th century, printers began to invent new punctuation. Nevertheless, punctuating an incomplete sentence was difficult. The use of a full stop was troublesome: a new student of Latin, for example, might be misled to seek a complete sentence where there is a fragment. Some printers avoided this problem by adding a gloss in the margins of the text that would draw attention to the line’s fragmentary nature. The ellipsis bypassed this process by abbreviating an entire gloss into a simple mark.
The ellipsis (in its signifying of a dramatic interruption) became a common feature in English drama. By 1627, editions of Andria (ex. trans. Thomas Newman) contained up to twenty-nine ellipses. Ben Jonson found the mark particularly fruitful. In the quarto version (1601) of Every Man in his Humour (a play presenting “deeds and language such as men do use”) there are a total of sixteen dashes; but, by the folio version (1616), there are seventy-seven. While fifty-three are terminal and thus signal Jonson’s awareness of the mark’s dramatic force, the remaining twenty-four appear to be the result of censorship legislation passed after the quarto’s publication. In spite of such censorship, Jonson, Toner suggests, may have found some use in these externally imposed censorship dashes. In the folio text, Jonson intimates blasphemy where there is none by changing “by Phoebus” to “by—.” One hundred years later, Joseph Addison, aware of the reader’s response to these suggestive dashes, fully exploits the mark’s comedic potential.
The history of the ellipsis is characterized by various inversions of this sort. In King Lear (1606), William Shakespeare questions the idealization of perspicuity by making Cordelia, in spite of the love she has for her father, incommunicative. The ellipsis, here, becomes a potent symbol of emotions too intense to be captured in language. At the end of the century, linguists were sensitive to the connection between emotion and the ellipsis. Bernard Lamy writes:
A violent passion never permits us to say all that we would: The Tongue is too slow to keep pace with the swiftness of its motions; so that when a Man is cool in Discourse, his Tongue is not so full of words, as when he is animated by passion. When our Passions are interrupted, or diverted another way, the Tongue following them, produces words of no reference or analogy with what we were saying before.
Writers noticed that the ellipsis’s capacity to capture emotions created an illusion of reality. Consequently, the interruptive, the suggestive, and the passionate all became staples in works of mimetic integrity.
In the 18th century, the ellipsis flourished in the sentimental novel. Novelists, increasingly occupied with trying to imitate the real world, began to present their dialogue in formats familiar to drama. In Clarissa (1747-1748), Samuel Richardson avoids all attributions of speech (“he said”s or “she said”s) and dramatizes his dialogue with terminal ellipses:
No vices, Madam!—
Hear me out, child— You have not behaved much amiss to him:
We have seen with pleasure that you have not.—
O Madam, must I not now speak!—
I shall have done presently—
The sentimental novelist also began to expand the function of the ellipsis by having it figure not only on the level of sentence structure, but also on the level of narrative structure. Novelists started to actively avoid closure in a manner that mirrored the terminal interruptions featured in their dialogue. The Gothic novelists were particularly avid in their exploration of the orthographic and narrative potential of the ellipsis. In “Sir Bertrand, A Fragment” (1773), Lucy and John Aikins “close” their story with ellipses in order to leave the reader in a haunting obscurity, as though he or she was reading from an old and fragmented manuscript: the line between where the novel ends and where reality begins was blurred.
While elocutionists like Thomas Sheridan and James Burrow took note of the efficacy of the ellipsis in recording speech, more orthodox grammarians like Robert Lowth and Hugh Blair avidly denounced their use. In the 18th and 19th centuries, perspicuity and the complete sentence was still the poetic ideal, and even writers were critical of the ellipsis. In A Tale of a Tub (1704), for example, Jonathan Swift parodies the overuse of ellipses by having his narrator’s lacunae-filled argument dissolve into a series of asterisks:
* THERE is in Mankind a certain * *
* * * * * * * * * *
Hic multa * * * * * * * *
disiderantur * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * *
* * And this I take to be a clear Solution of the Matter.
A distaste for the ellipsis survived into the 19th century: George Eliot, for one, avoided the use of ellipsis with increasing caution. Towards the end of the 19th century, the ellipsis flourished again. George Meredith would find these “dots […] the best symbols for rendering cardisophical subtleties intelligible” and Samuel Beckett would famously show his sensitivity to the mark when instructing Billie Whitelaw to “make those three dots, two dots.” The most groundbreaking use of the ellipsis appeared in Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer’s collaborative novel, The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901). In their short novel, Conrad and Hueffer aimed “to get into situations […] the sort of indefiniteness that is characteristic of all human conversations, and particularly of all English conversations that are almost always conducted entirely by means of allusions and unfinished sentences.” The result was a novel filled with stutters, dead-ends, interruptions, and silences, all indicated by means of its 400-plus ellipsis.
Toner ends on this relatively positive note. But we find in her work a lacuna which she herself acknowledges: experimental poetry. To include experimental poetry, however, would be to pull the rug from under her study. The Ellipsis in English Literature would have had to become as fetishistic as the experimental poets she would have included. Toner’s study would have become a parody of itself, pushing the limits (or leaving the limits behind) of what the ellipsis really represents. If that were the case, the punctuation mark would remain the hobbyhorse of a small group of fixated enthusiasts. As I finish this article, I have, on my Internet browser, the twitter page for derek beaulieu’s “Erasing Warhol” project. The twitter page features a number of pages from Andy Warhol’s a, A Novel (1968). Each page has all of its text erased, except the punctuation marks and the onomatopoeic words. Most of the resultant pages are a nice array of full stops, commas, and…ellipses. The project’s twitter account has 467 tweets and just 201 followers.
Alex Assaly  is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Cambridge.