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Thursday, November 20, 2008

I've never changed, never will

Reader-submitted question: I love ellipses. But I write scripts, not newspaper copy, so it's not as bad, right?

I've decided to write this as a radio column. So you'll have to imagine that I'm talking.

See what I just did? Well. I mean, did you HEAR what I just did? You're HEARING me say these words. And that sentence didn't have very good grammar. But that's OK.

Now, I know the Forces of Evil are still out there. And they can't WAIT to send me nasty messages. So I guess I should explain.

Writing for radio is not the same as writing for newspapers or even for blogs. When you write for radio, you write for the ear. You're going to write short sentences that sound natural when you read them out loud. And most of the time you're not going to write the same way you'd write for the newspaper. That's because you're not really writing at all. You're talking.

There's no punctuation in radio. Only pauses and changes in your voice. So you're not using ellipses at all, really...you're just leaving markers for yourself that tell you to take a breath. You could put commas there, or you could put in a period.

Or you could start on a new line.

It doesn't really matter. And that's because you're not creating something that will be read. You're creating something that will be HEARD.

Now, if I meant for you to READ this instead of HEARING it, I wouldn't write words in capital letters. That would be rude: you'd probably think I was shouting at you. But I wrote those words that way to tell myself that I want to put extra emphasis on them when I read them to you. I'm not using punctuation to give you clues about what I mean. I'm using it to give ME direction about how to speak.

See, there's more subtlety in the spoken word. I can stop...cast around for the right word...and pick right up again where I left off. It's natural. The written word is UN-natural. We need rules -- like grammar -- to help us understand what a writer means. We need extra help, help we DON'T need when we listen to someone speak.

A print journalist has only TWO reasons to use an ellipsis. As you can tell from this post, people don't talk the way they write. Sometimes a quote SOUNDS better than it looks. A writer can use an ellipsis to fix a quote for print. There's only one other time you can use an ellipsis. That's to trail off mysteriously...

(beat)

But a writer CAN'T just stick an ellipsis in anywhere. Ellipses aren't decorations. You can't just use them because you think you need a really long bit of punctuation. And I THINK that's probably what happened here. The headline needed to be just a little bit longer. Instead of re-writing the headline, the editor tried to stretch it out.

Don't think I'm saying that radio reporters get off scot-free. They don't. But they don't follow the same punctuation rules print reporters use.

Now, before I go, I need to be really clear about one thing. That post wasn't about the ellipsis at all. The ellipsis is really not that big of a deal. Yeah, it shouldn't have been there. But really, WHATEVER. I'm not that sort of grammar freak.

That post was about journalists seeing themselves as the only ones who get the facts right, when in reality they mess up all the time. And they KNOW that. They just can't resist getting in a few digs at the competition. Most media organisations do this.

Here's an example. CBC might say that print media reported that Mr. Smith died, but his family says he's still alive. It's just their way of reminding you who you can trust. CBC does this all the time. So does the Paper of Record. But this story was an extreme example. That's why I picked it. NOT because of the ellipsis.

(beat)

Thanks for your question.

3 comments:

scribe said...

Well, blogs aren't newspapers, so ellipses in any case are ok....I think. And besides, if the Papers of Record in both the U.S. and Canada can do it, then....well, you know....it's ok.

Karen said...

My name is Karen, and I am an ellipse-aholic. And I refuse to apologize for it, even though I know it diminishes me in the eyes of my grammar-nazi friends. I can write properly when I need to...I use the ellipses just for me.

Megan said...

It does not diminish you at all: it's just a comment on a personal blog. Let's keep our heads about this.

Now, if you were to use ellipses incorrectly in your professional work, THAT would be bad.