On Poetry and Culture Shock

The Hansel and Gretel Effect (How Not to Write Part 9)

Easy. Very easy. Love and respect punctuation rules. Of course we are supposed to take liberties with punctuation as much as with everything else: writing three pages (or a whole chapter or a whole novel) without full stops, or a telegraphic style with extremely short sentences, all of that is perfectly fine. What is not fine is to use punctuation signs for things that were never meant to be: the most abused punctuation mark is probably the ellipsis, the “…”, which is Spain has the quaint name of “puntos suspensivos”, “suspense full stops”.

This marker can indicate a pause in speech, not in narration, or that a thought or sentence is going to be left unfinished or interrupted. Three dots, like three little crumbs left by Hansel and Gretel, are not a substitute for an “etc” or for a slow reading rhythm. If you want reading to be slow, write long sentences, long paragraphs, and use repetitions, or parallelisms in the syntax. In dialogues, three dots are very useful to indicate pauses, interruptions, and the speech of characters that leave sentences trailing. The worst misuse of the ellipsis is probably the amateur writer’s tendency to suggest the effect of a first-person narrator’s stream of thought by finishing many sentences with dots, especially the ones that are not merely narrative, wishing to give (I imagine) the impression that there are other, deeper thoughts, too subtle for speech, slipping away from the mind or the pen, between those damned three dots. These writers take too seriously the suspense-creating function of the “suspense stop” and think that they can actually convey meaning with them at the expense of writing. The effect is actually repetitive, unpolished, and very unoriginal. In prose, if a sentence can stay meaningful without ellipsis at the end, or if a comma in that position does not change the meaning of the sentence, the dots are not necessary: give the three crumbs back to Hansel, who needs them more than you do.

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