f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

April 20, 2004

yabut v. ellipses (why prof. yabut can’t . . . retire)

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 11:59 am

prof yabut small I was born a yabut, and it looks like I’m going to die one.  There’s just too much to do to retire any time soon.  Lately, ellipses are the problem — or, more precisely, the misuse of ellipses, omission of ellipses, and the use of deceptively elliptic speech.

  • I was reminded to write on this topic yesterday, when I saw Judge Kevin S. Burke’s statement: “[T]oo often the current method of policy disagreement is to take the other guy’s idea, mischaracterize it and announce your profound disagreement and outrage.” And, I knew it was in the stars this morning to post on it, when the Quote of the Day at May It Please the Court was Mark Twain’s remark “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as much as you please.”

dotkeyn So, listen up, quote-benders and word-weasels:  An ellipsis (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) is “1a. The omission of a word or phrase necessary for a complete syntactical construction but not necessary for understanding. b. An example of such omission.”    Ellipses are not an ethical way to justify a quote that has been taken out of context or stripped of important information or modifiers.  Using an ellipsis allows the skeptical (that is, wise) reader to check up on you.  As Ronald Reagan aptly quipped about the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.”

  • Am I being too cynical?  The Curmudgeon Online says, quoting F. W. Nietzsche, “Joyous Distrust is a sign of health. Everything absolute belongs to pathology.”
While I abhor the misuse of ellipses, I detest even more the failure to use them when needed.   To wit, when one makes an omission from a quote, one is supposed to indicate such, by means of “a mark or series of marks” that makes clear an ellipsis has been made.  This is not difficult stuff, but you sure would think so from the way a lot of lawyers — and even just plain folk — argue or discuss issues and respond to the statements of others.
  • Again, am I being too cynical?  The Curmudgeon Online says, quoting Robert Benchley, “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.”

dotkeyg Just when did the first lawyer use an ellipsis to show he or she had omitted part of a quote?  Problably, right after he was held in contempt of court for a truncated quote that misled the judge.  Almost immediately, I am sure, the “tactical” advantages of ellipses became apparent to the profession.

Another highly annoying habit that is indefinitely postponing the retirement of Prof Yabut is the use of the elliptic form of speech in general — that is, using a deliberately sparse or obscure style or expression in order to mislead.  That often means leaving out important modifiers from one’s own speech or taking them out of another’s when disagreeing.  Admen, politicians, and lawyers do a lot of this, and lately I’ve seen it in the weblogiverse far too often.

So, here are some representative examples from the “Yeah, but” Man . .  dotKeyS:

  • Don’t say “it works” when you mean “it might work” or “I hope it works,” or “it has been known to work.”
    • And, when your opponent says “it might not work very often,” or “there’s no proof it works,” don’t answer as if he said “it never can work.”
  • When someone says “X is more likely to do Y,” don’t go into a snit and respond as if the quote was “X is likely to do Y.”
  • Similarly, if a humble editor says “you haven’t shown the connection between a and b,” don’t accuse him of saying “there is no connection between a and b”, and please don’t just keep repeating that the connection exists.
  • Adverbs and adjectives are very important words — they make lots of statements more honest and truthful, so use them when appropriate.  On the other hand omitting them from a quote or a paraphrase can often be deceptive when trying to counter an argument.

This campaign is not likely to end any time soon.  As Fyodor M. Dostoyevtsky noted, “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”  Nor, as Plato knew, is it a pleasant task: “They deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth.”  Thus, the Professor has quite a few more semesters ahead of him.


  1. I have to admit… I tend to over use and incorrectly use ellipses constantly. I don’t know where I picked up the habit, but I tend to use them (in casual writing) as a stylistic device. They act as… a sort of break from the train of thought. :)

    I do hate the way they are (incorrectly) used in the press though…

    Comment by Dave! — April 20, 2004 @ 2:23 pm

  2. Dots really sad, Dave!  Perhaps we can find you a mentor and a local Ellipsoholics Anonymous chapter. 

    Comment by David Giacalone — April 22, 2004 @ 9:43 am

  3. […] Fallacious Argument to that champion of straight talk and clear thinking, David Giacalone, who reminds me of an important piece of advice to leave you with, attributable to the man some call the Great Communicator: Trust, but […]

    Pingback by Fallacious Argument of the Month: misusing the ellipsis — September 11, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress