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    Celebrate the solar eclipse with some of the best and worst ellipses in literature (and life).

    James Folta

    April 4, 2024, 1:44pm

    People around the world are getting ready for the total solar eclipse next Monday, April 8th. I secured a pair of glasses last month, since the last time there was a solar eclipse in New York, I had to borrow a pair of viewing glasses from some teens in the park, which was an experience that was as haunting and humbling as the eclipse itself.

    I’ve also been thinking about the grammatical equivalent of the eclipse: the ellipsis, which obscures like its celestial sibling. In celebration of things concealed, here are some of my favorite and least favorite ellipses…

    Langston Hughes’ “Dream Variations”

    The ellipsis is all over poetry, but one of my favorites is Langston Hughe’s striking ellipsis in the second stanza of “Dream Variations,” pausing and elongating before the final lines:

    To fling my arms wide
    In the face of the sun,
    Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
    Till the quick day is done.
    Rest at pale evening . . .
    A tall, slim tree . . .
    Night coming tenderly
    Black like me.

    Terence’s Andria, translated in 1588 by Maurice Kyffin

    Cambridge’s Dr. Anne Toner has found what she believes to be the earliest print use of an ellipsis in an English translation of a Roman play. I won’t attempt to transcribe the Gothic printing, but it’s worth checking out the translator’s innovation: rendering an interruption as an ellipsis of four dashes. It’s a clever shorthand to transcribe the way we speak onto the page, and an old example of the literary power of how, as Dr. Toner writes, “not saying something often says it better.”

    George Lucas’ Star Wars

    The opening title card—“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”—is one of the great uses of an ellipsis. Preceding John Williams’ booming score, the punctuation is a pause that transports us from the ten introductory words of exposition into the world of the film.

    The ominous text message

    Whether it’s a tech-phobic family member accidentally turning a backyard update into a horror story (“that bluejay has returned…”), a date ruining your day (“so…”), or a friend prodding you to reply (“…”), the ellipsis is flourishing in the text age.

    George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil

    Though very different than her other writing, I’ve always enjoyed this Victorian horror novel by George Eliot about a man cursed to perceive others’ thoughts. The book is full of ellipses as the main character lapses in and out of consciousness, and considers their uncanny ability:

    “This strange new power had manifested itself again…But was it a power?”

    It’s nice to imagine a time when a character considering their strange new powers was more than the set-up to a dull superhero movie.

    Passive aggressive emails

    If you have a job that relies on email, you know that the ellipsis can be wielded like a dagger by your most impatient and judgmental coworker:

    “Still waiting on that document…”
    “Concerning yesterday…”
    “Kitchenette etiquette…”

    But nothing rivals the severity and concision of:


    It’s easily the most sinister combination of punctuation in the English language. Where’s the Oppenheimer-style biopic on the first person to combine the ellipsis and the question mark?

    James Joyce’s “The Sisters”

    Joyce is an ellipsis fiend, and there’s a particularly powerful one in this story from Dubliners. After the death of a priest who may have abused the narrator:

    “Did he… peacefully?” she asked.

    “Oh, quite peacefully, ma’am,” said Eliza. “You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.”

    “And everything… ?”

    “Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.”

    The discomfort and illicit knowledge behind this ellipsis, the questions implied but not asked, and the hint of dark, vengeful desire are all hidden behind those dots.

    William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I

    Hotspur’s death in Act V cuts him off in mid-sentence. I’ve seen this printed as a dash too, but the version of the play on my bookshelf has Hotspur expiring with an ellipsis:

    And time, that takes survey of all the world,
    Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
    But that the earthy and cold hand of death
    Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
    And food for⁠… (Dies)

    The ellipsis feels like a more dramatic final flourish than the sharp and savage dash, but either is preferable to the death of the real Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy, who was exhumed and posthumously executed.

    Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse

    Woolf’s great novel is full of literary ellipses: time passing in a blink, introspective pauses, and thoughts trailing away. But the book also features some great grammatical ellipses, like when Mrs. Ramsay spots a man pasting up a poster of a circus scene:

    The vast flapping sheet flattened itself out, and each shove of the brush revealed fresh legs, hoops, horses, glistening reds and blues, beautifully smooth, until half the wall was covered with the advertisement of a circus; a hundred horsemen, twenty performing seals, lions, tigers . . . Craning forwards, for she was short-sighted, she read it out . . . “will visit this town,” she read.

    A related sidebar: Virginia Woolf saw a solar eclipse in 1927, and her diary entries about it are not making me look forward to seeing the sun blotted out on Monday:

    “I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. … We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”

    “To be continued…”

    A phrase pioneered in early serialized writing and comics, the teasing “to be continued…” is the hallmark of the cliffhanger, that scourge of bad TV and procedural writing. It’s a use of the ellipsis that has inspired plenty of frustration, but this eclipse season, all I ask is that you don’t blame the punctuation too much the next time you throw your hands up at the TV screen.

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