President Donald Trump's longest ellipsis is a punctuation chasm stretching 23 dots in length. No fewer than 20 of those periods are entirely unnecessary, a waste of space, a trail of grammatical droppings appended to an otherwise ordinary ellipsis:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 19, 2015
While the format of that tweet indicates the words (and extended ellipsis) ought to be attributed to @drvanderbloomen, the original tweet no longer exists, or perhaps never did. In fact, it even sounds like the president. After all, Trump's ellipses come in all shapes and sizes: occasionally in twos, sometimes in threes, frequently in fours, commonly in fives. It is not unheard of to see periods lined up in rows of six, seven, or eight.
Perhaps the least important takeaway from this is that America's 45th president, who famously brags about not reading books, could evidently not pass an elementary school grammar pop quiz. But there are far more compelling lessons if we delve into the ellipsis' ominous literary history, dating to a time when it was not just a dramatic pause but an indication of darkness, obscurity, vacantness — and even madness.
"Ellipsis marks trade on the value of innuendo, scandal, and sensation," punctuation historian Anne Toner writes in her study Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission. And now they are the linguistic currency of President Trump.
The ellipsis is often simply called the "dot-dot-dot" (although one might be forgiven for assuming, from Trump's tweets, that it is pronounced more like a mad human Morse code of: dotdotdotdotdotdot—). For much of its history, the ellipsis was standardized as three dots ( ... ) and only on rare and particular occasion does it ever properly extend to four, to indicate that the "omitted material included at least one sentence."
For Trump, ellipses most commonly seem to be visual stepping stones linking two separate tweets, like so:
I am reading that the great border WALL will cost more than the government originally thought, but I have not gotten involved in the.....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2017
...design or negotiations yet. When I do, just like with the F-35 FighterJet or the Air Force One Program, price will come WAY DOWN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2017
Less commonly, Trump uses the ellipsis as an "aposiopesis," a literary technique indicating that the speaker needed to break off his sentence either because he was unwilling or unable to go on:
I will be speaking at 9:00 A.M. today to Police Chiefs and Sheriffs and will be discussing the horrible, dangerous and wrong decision.......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017
Other times, the Trumpian ellipsis works as a dramatic break in the middle of a thought:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2016
But it's not just Trump's use of the ellipsis that's intriguing. Our president actually shares much in common with the ellipsis, a mark that spent a good deal of its history being mocked.
"[The ellipsis] means that the writer ... is trying to suggest something rather ... well, elusive, if you get what we mean," Don Marquis wrote in the New York Evening Sun, as quoted by George Summey in his 1919 book Modern Punctuation: Its Utilities and Conventions. "And the reason he suggests it instead of expressing it ... is ... very often ... because it is almost an idea ... instead of a real idea."
Italian novelist Umberto Eco took fewer words to dismiss the ellipsis, calling it a "ghastliness." German philosopher Theodor Adorno ungenerously linked the dot-dot-dot to "an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something the hack journalist does not have; he must depend on typography to simulate them."
What would these celebrated thinkers think of Trump?
The episode of the Apprentice that everyone has been waiting for....Joan Rivers stars, and she is and does GREAT! Next Monday night at 8:00
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2015
The first true use of the ellipsis as we know it comes from the English translation of the 1588 play Andria by Terence. The text was printed by Thomas East, who at the time had a reputation for printing music. The ellipsis, then, was born out of the idea of "written sound," or rather the absence of it, the way a rest might work in a score. That hollowness is even contained in its etymology: from the Greek elleipein, to leave out, we get ellipsis, elliptical, ellipticity.
Shortly after Terence, Shakespeare used the ellipsis to create pauses in two of his tragedies: Othello and King Lear. In Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission, Toner links the ellipsis to its prevalent association with darkness and obscurity:
"Eclipses" in the seventeenth century were grammatical and typographical as much as they were astronomical (and in all of these forms exactly homophonic). In contemporary guides to rhetoric, the word "eclipses" was more common than "ellipses" with which it was interchangeable ... Richard Sherry in A Treatise of the Figures of Grammar and Rhetorike evokes the connotations of the grammatical "eclipsis" as a form of textual darkness. Eclipsis is an "Obscurite," and when used, writes Sherry, "a certain darkness is brought in." [Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission]
Trump has a masterful ear and eye for the theatrical, coining catchy nicknames for his opponents and dropping his "make America great again" motto with the frequency of a television jingle. He has a flare for darkness too, in his apocalyptic portrayal of a fallen, weak America. The ellipsis serves him when his imagination, or character limits, cannot:
Can you envision Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton negotiating with 'El Chapo', the Mexican drug lord who escaped from prison? ....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 13, 2015
By the 20th century, the Modernist writers had "cultivated new connotations for ellipsis points, though new connotations were in many ways intensifications of old ones," Toner writes. "Rupture, fragmentation, and formlessness were invested with generational significance and with increasing existential significance as the century went on, as certainties collapsed at every turn."
Certainties are doing nothing now if not collapsing at every turn, and Trump eagerly embraces it with his punctuation, which implies a theatrical darkness, rupture, and dread. His ellipses often hang unresolved for minutes, or dozens of minutes, building suspense and fueling wild speculation — and, of course, stoking attention:
What was Trump doing in the 20 minutes between these two tweets? pic.twitter.com/MSn9EFpN5Q
— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) January 5, 2017
Historically, the ellipsis can have another implication, too — the deterioration of the mind. In Wilkie Collins' 1868 novel The Moonstone, one character transcribes another's laudanum-laced ramblings as:
"... Mr. Franklin Blake ... and agreeable ... down a peg ... medicine ... confesses ... sleep at night ... tell him ... out of order ... medicine ... he tells me ... and groping in the dark mean one and the same thing ... all the company at the dinner-table ... I say ... groping after sleep ... nothing but medicine ... he says ... leading the blind ... know what it means ... witty ... a night's rest in spite of his teeth ... wants sleep ... Lady Verinder's medicine chest ... five-and-twenty minims ... without his knowing it ... tomorrow morning ... Well, Mr. Blake ... medicine today ... never ... without it ... out, Mr. Candy ... excellent ... without it ... down on him ... truth ... something besides ... excellent ... dose of laudanum, sir ... bed ... what ... medicine now." [The Moonstone]
By the 20th century, this had only become more true. "Ellipsis points can be seen as the symbol of the century as they articulate its ever-unraveling coherence," Toner writes.
....... I disagree, but it's still cool.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2013
The advent of the internet has led to an even more pressing drive to rid communication of any unnecessary letters or phrases — emojis, slang, and ellipses flourish. It is here that President Trump, whose use of Twitter in particular has been deemed "genius," finds fertile soil for his thoughts. No longer was he required to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times for his rants: Through simple omission, or dramatic pause, he can stoke sensationalism and cover up the shallowness of his own thoughts.
I can't believe @VanityFair would renew Graydon Carter's contract......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 22, 2013
Language is undeniably powerful (perhaps more so now than it ever has been) and it shapes the way we see the world, just as we may shape it. And make no mistake: Punctuation is the cornerstone of language. It also acts as a telling magnifying glass into a person's character, worldview, beliefs, and even their own private mind.
As a nation under President Trump, we are living on the precipice of his biggest ellipsis yet. It is anyone's guess what will be on the other side.