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July 30, 2013

A plague of . . . ellipses!

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

"Now, though, much of what is typed is for swift delivery and has more the character of speech, where whole, unbroken sentences are a rarity," Shirky says. "Speech is instead characterized by continuous flow, with lots of pauses, repeats, false starts . . . and pauses to indicate changes in direction. We're living in a moment a bit like Alexander the Great's time, when he adopted the altogether remarkable habit (or so Plutarch reported) of reading silently. The relationship between the alphabet and talking was progressively broken as people learned to sound things out in their heads. Now we're seeing a moment of reversal, where people are trying to use alphabets like we're talking, and it's . . . hard. So we reach for the ellipsis."

When queried about his ellipsis overuse, my friend on the terrible softball team — who is also a professor in the communications department at a large Midwestern university — went even further in connecting the dots to speech. He said he uses ellipses mainly because they help him feel as though he's engaged in a more dynamic written conversation — with the ellipses serving mostly as intentional, meaningful pauses. "It's largely a preference for what seems like a more dramatic way of presenting something," he says. "When I'm writing my friends, I see that writing more as I would in conversation with them: more intimately, more expressively, usually with pauses for facial contortions and intentional negative spaces. On the phone, enough of the elements of in-person conversation are present that we can imagine what the person looks like on the other end. But email, and even texts, are so cold this way."

For Sicha, there was something else at play when he was typing all those dots, though. "It was a way to write lazy emails, honestly, without having to think about syntax or relation of each sentence to the next," he says.

Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

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