The Birth of the Ellipsis.

Alison Flood reports in the Guardian about an exciting discovery (for those of us who find punctuation exciting):

Dr Anne Toner believes she has identified the earliest use of the ellipsis in 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. […]

“It’s interesting to think about whose idea it was to use what turned out to be a very useful resource … was it the translator of the Terence play, or the printer? Who the agent was behind the mark is very unclear,” Toner said. “But you then start to see it being used relatively quickly in dramatic works … in Ben Jonson plays, for example.”

It also appears in Shakespeare. Toner writes of Henry IV, Part I, that “Hotspur dies on a dash”, with his last words cut short: “no, Percy, thou art dust / And food for–”

By the 18th century, said Toner, it “becomes very common in print, and blanking starts to be used as a means of avoiding libel laws”, with series of dots starting to be seen in English works, as well as hyphens and dashes, to mark an ellipsis.

There are some nice images of the books in question at the link.

Also, congratulations to Arika Okrent, winner of the LSA Linguistics Journalism Award!


  1. Well, I’ll be…

  2. dies on a dash

    In 1916, Sir Roger Casement was hanged on a comma (and, the article adds, sentenced to a full stop).

    Just ignore the second half of the article, which is peevery about comma splices, however short the sentences so connected. (Do we really want “I came; I saw; I conquered”? I think not.)

  3. And if anyone might be so foolish as to ask whether precise choice of punctuation really matters in the printed text of a play, Harold Pinter had the final word on the matter in 1962:

    I’ve had two full-length plays produced in London. The first ran a week, and the second ran a year. Of course, there are differences between the two plays. In The Birthday Party I employed a certain amount of dashes in the text, between phrases. In The Caretaker I cut out the dashes and used dots instead. So that instead of, say, ‘Look, dash, who, dash, I, dash, dash, dash,’ the text would read, ‘Look, dot, dot, dot, who, dot, dot, dot, I, dot, dot, dot, dot.’ So it’s possible to deduce from this that dots are more popular than dashes, and that’s why The Caretaker had a longer run than The Birthday Party. The fact that in neither case could you hear the dots and dashes in performance is beside the point. You can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot from a dash a mile off, even if they can hear neither.

  4. Unsurprisingly, Toner quotes that passage on page 165 of her book.

  5. Not remotely as cool as my 1747 smiley.

  6. Where can that be seen ?

  7. In a manuscript letter in the Bodleian!

  8. John Cowan says

    Sir Roger Casement was hanged on a comma

    And now Mike Pence is trying not to be:

    When recounting a phone call with Trump on Christmas day 2020, Pence wrote in his book that he told Trump, ‘You know, I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome of the election on January 6th.’ But Pence allegedly told Smith’s investigators the comma should never have been placed there. According to sources, Pence told Smith’s investigators he meant to write in his book he admonished Trump, ‘You know I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome,’ suggesting that Trump was well aware of the limitations of Pence’s authority days before January 6th — a line Smith includes in his indictment.”

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