Where the three dots came from …

In a recent piece in The Guardian, “Unfinished story … how the ellipsis arrived in English literature,” Alison Flood describes the work of Cambridge University professor Anne Toner, who locates the origin of the ellipsis – “the mark of incomplete speech” – in Renaissance English drama,

pinning it down to a 1588 edition of the Roman dramatist Terence’s play, Andria, which had been translated into English by Maurice Kyffin and printed by Thomas East, and in which hyphens, rather than dots, mark incomplete utterances by the play’s characters. … Although there are instances of ellipses occurring in letters around the same time, this is the earliest printed version found by Toner following her chronological research into the earliest dramas in print.

“This was a brilliant innovation,” she writes in Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission, a history of the use of dots, dashes and asterisks to mark a silence of some kind, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

[Note: Above I use an ellipsis, the one before “Although,” to indicate missing or removed words rather than “incomplete speech.”]

Toner’s favourite uses from literature:

From Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne:

“Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?—Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.”

From The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot:

“ I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

From The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

“… I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.”

From “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson:

“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all -”

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West:

if I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed would you—”

Virginia Woolf imagines death by a bomb in her diary:

“Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so – Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness – and then, dot dot dot.”

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