It’s not difficult to identify an old person online just by the way they write: their inability to use an appropriate amount of emoji, for instance, or their torrid love affair with the caps-lock button. Our nation’s most, uh, mature members of The Online have a pretty well-defined language. The majority of their most baffling habits are excusable. They’re... well, old. However, amidst all of the *LOL!*s and <3GMAs there’s one omnipresent aspect of Old-People-ese: Their unwavering, unending obsession with ellipses.
Unlike any of the other most egregious parts of the Old People Online Stylebook, chronic ellipsis overuse has no easy explanation. It’s not a vestige of the good-ole letter writing days, nor does it seem to fall under the ‘general misunderstanding of new things’ category. Ellipses have existed long before our grandmothers and grandfathers experimented with the gateway drug known as Facebook, and they probably will continue to exist long after we all merge our consciousnesses with WeChat or whatever comes next. When used in casual conversation, ellipses connote hesitation, confusion, and apathy — they’re the most passive-aggressive of all the punctuation marks.
So, why the hell have old people decided to co-opt them?
why do....old...people use ellipses.....so....unnecessarily...what are..you trying to....say— Amelie (@212dodge) February 8, 2018
what is with old people and the use of ellipses pic.twitter.com/qnWVzOq3j2— banquet™ pay me (@SOClALDlSEASE) February 7, 2018
Why do old people use ellipses so much? It’s already hard enough to determine the tone of texts and then they hit you with “lol...” or “hello...”— ( ◠‿◠ ) (@Adrian_euplusme) January 25, 2018
Why do old people use ellipses so much? My mom tells me she loves me and it sounds like she thinks I’m a huge disappointment. pic.twitter.com/M1npZ0bUTj— Kirsten (@_heyitskirsten) October 19, 2017
In order to truly get to the bottom of this, I went straight to the source.
“I think it's related to how, though I hate exclamation marks, I use them a lot in email so my tone doesn’t get misinterpreted as negative,” Eliot Borenstein, a NYU professor (and self-confessed ellipsis-abuser), told me over Facebook Messenger. Borenstein views ellipses as the perfect balance between the hard stop of a period and the excitement of the exclamation point. He hadn’t realized how they could be interpreted passive-aggressive by others: “But now that I think about it, if I imagine a comment ending in a ellipsis read aloud by a millennial, I can imagine the[ir] voice going up at the end, a little smile, like [they’re] indicating something ironic. But in my head, the tone doesn't go up. It just...drifts off…”
“Ellipsis dots have always had multiple interpretations.” said linguist David Crystal over email. “As with all punc[tuation] marks, they can be used purely phonetically (to mark pause, in this case) or semantically (to imply something unsaid), and it is the latter that leads to the kind of comments you’ve encountered. Leaving something unsaid at the end of a sentence is invariably full of potential danger!”
Technically, most modern day text messages (and emails) are rife with linguistic ellipses, meaning, the exclusion of unnecessary words and/or phrases, e.g. He will help, and she will (help), too. And while some may consider this an assault against the English language, it’s really only natural. Technology has made the back-end work of communication practically instantaneous, with the only limit being, well, us and our comparatively sluggish typing speeds, so our tendency towards omission makes sense. However, the linguistic ellipsis could not be more different than the literal, which seems to — if anything — slow down both the writer and the reader as the three dots are used to replace any and all forms of punctuation.
“It's hard to say what the context would be,” said Borenstein. “I guess I also really like them, since I like the idea of my comment just kind of....trailing off...in a thoughtful haze.... It means I'm still thinking!”
It seems like there’s some sort of grand miscommunication going on here. When I asked my grandfather (the most egregious of all ellipses-users in my life), he similarly cited an aversion to concrete endings. I understand that a period (or, god forbid, an exclamation point) might feel too harsh of a closing for most thoughts, yet I can’t for the life of me wrap my head around the idea that adding two more to the end of your sentence makes it that much better.