What do ellipses do for us?

Beyoncé (feat. Jay-Z) “Drunk in Love” Unofficial Emoji Video from JESSE HILL on Vimeo.

Assistant professor of cinema studies at Purchase College, State University of New York

Last year, Austin-based video producer Jesse Hill made a video to impress his girlfriend for Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Drunk in Love” that transcribes the entire song’s lyrics into a series of emojis. The video went viral and even left the shrewd pop diva herself quite impressed, endorsing it on her Facebook page and designing two t-shirts for her songs with emojis on their arms, available to buy on her website.

The video’s popularity—and its clever appropriation of the eyeball, snowman, eggplant, and clock emojis, among many others—immediately makes clear that emojis circulate across popular culture to signify more than just their intended meanings. One less strikingly interesting emoji in this video is the use of the speech balloon emoji to stand in for the repeated line “I’ve been thinking” (it’s only repeated twice at the beginning of the song—by the end, the lovers are presumably too drunk to think anymore). Though there is technically a separate “thought balloon” emoji where the text bubble is empty, the use of the speech balloon emoji with the three dots to represent “I’ve been thinking” suggests that the symbol registers abstraction, illustrating a tendency to associate punctuation with thought itself.

In its 2012 iOS 5 update, Apple introduced this speech balloon to devices’ emoji keyboard, a text bubble with three dots in it. Known as a “typing awareness indicator” in chat services, this symbol’s introduction as an emoji signals the extent to which the ellipsis has become a familiar image we see moving through our digital communication streams.

The typing awareness indicator is a default feature offered by most popular chat services that shows when the person on the other end is typing, aiding in conversational turn-taking. The idea is that if I see this ellipsis, I know the other person is typing, so I wait to see what that person is typing so that we are not both typing simultaneously, potentially haphazardly moving our conversation in different directions at the same time.

Ellipses in the digital age

The ellipsis thus appears to solve a problem posed by the distinct features of communication in the digital age. One of the most fundamental affordances of computing technologies is that they allow physically separated people to have real-time textual chat. Unlike in face-to-face or telephone conversations though, one doesn’t see or hear who one is talking to and one doesn’t know if the person on the other end is actively involved in the conversation. With networked media and the expectations that we are multitasking and, as danah boyd puts it, “participating in the always-on lifestyle,” we might be accessing multiple services, online with multiple screens open, and we might leave them open while we are on the phone with someone else, working in an another room, out of the office, etc. [1] As cinema and media scholar Anne Friedberg observed twenty years ago in The Virtual Window, “Multiple-frame images are a readable new visual syntax, a key feature in the contemporary remaking of a visual vernacular.” [2] Friedberg’s work is important because it turned our attention to how digital screen displays were forming a significant break with the centuries-long regime of perspective in visual culture, whereby the composition and framing of images oriented viewing practices around a single, centralized point.

The multiple points of the ellipsis thus cue us in this postperspectival vernacular that our conversation partner is actually electronically present with us, engaged on the other end. In this way, while the cultural logic of these digital dots represents a break with one centuries-long tradition in art history, they are continuous with another centuries-long history of punctuation in writing. Punctuation marks were symbols invented to resolve ambiguity and to help facilitate the efficiency of communication, just like digital ellipses do. But digital chats’ reappropriated dots resolve an ambiguity specific to networked media: turn-taking when the conversation partner’s presence is otherwise impossible to assure.

The shift here is one from the ambiguity of how to read words within textual space to an existential ambiguity of whether or not anyone is even listening to us. Think of all the ways contemporary digital selves constantly need assurance that they are being listened to: by “liking,” retweeting, favoriting, or hashtagging.

iMessage and Facebook typing awareness indicator dots are also notably moving images; in iMessaging, for example, each dot moves through different shades of boldness. An amusing prank available is a typing awareness indicator GIF, with animated ellipses, which you can send by text to trick your recipient into thinking that you are eternally composing your message.

Importantly, movement configures the awareness indicator as a temporal object, where the animated bold dot could allow one to measure the passage of time. And the longer it lasts, the more one can both visually fixate on the image and imagine possibilities of what one’s partner might be typing or not typing.

In this sense, it is instructive to consider the structures of relations that ellipses inscribe as punctuation—what they make us think about and what they do for us. They need not necessarily be dots: film scholar Linda Williams for example has referred to “rhetorical” ellipses of sexual representation in cinema: in their moving inscription of absence, they encourage one to speculate over what is concealed. 

Rhetorical ellipses

Williams in particular details how in American film from early cinema through the end of the production code, the on-screen kiss regularly appeared only to be cut short, standing in for unrepresentable, sexually-charged screen time. Hence there was a “long adolescence” of several decades before a more sexually liberated American cinema—and culture more generally—broke onto the scene in the 1960s. In an analysis of classical Hollywood’s codes of sexual representation through an example—of what should be Casablanca’s “big kiss,” but which quickly dissolves to a long shot of a search light—she discusses how the ellipsis helps us think about not just literal punctuation marks but rhetorically about them as well. [3]

Williams writes:

An ellipsis is a rhetorical figure of speech in which a word or words required by strict grammatical rules are omitted (‘She left’ instead of ‘She left his bedroom’). In conventions of printing or writing, an ellipsis is a literal gap indicated by a series of sequential dots that omit words that could, but the logic of what comes before or after, be present. In both contexts, the missing words are implied by the context. The context, in the case of Casablanca, is the kiss—indeed all the kisses—begun and never seen to be completed by Ilsa and Rick throughout the film. Ellipses happen all the time in movies, frequently within the same scene, usually accomplished by single cuts from shot to shot.

But, she claims, they are “especially frequent in . . . representations of sex acts” (305).

Ellipses, in other words, offer a way to think about the formal structure of absence, a longstanding favorite topic for theorists since poststructuralism who want to draw attention to the things that make up our worlds that we don’t see or pay attention to—or to the things that could be there but that aren’t.

If Williams’ rhetorical ellipsis characterizes silent and classical Hollywood cinema’s representations of sex, then contemporary cinema and media cultures forego such ellipses. Our screens, depending who you ask, display gratuitous sex. Pornography is a growing industry, often claimed to channel in more traffic and revenue than Hollywood. Moreover, webcams and cellphones in theory give each of us the democratic ability to be our own pornographers. The rhetorical ellipsis implying sex, in turn, would seem to have largely subsided from our screens as a dominant trope.

Ellipses’ onscreen presences have transitioned from rhetorical ellipses on our cinema screens to literal ellipses on our digital screens, such as those in the Beyoncé emoji music video. This claim might seem conceptually slippery, but it is itself elliptical. Lauren Berlant describes her thought as “elliptical”: “it both tracks concepts and allows for unfinishedness, inducing itself to become misshapen in the hope that by the time you return to the point of departure, so many things will have come into contact that the contours of the concept and the forms associated with its movement will have changed.” [4] My own elliptical path is useful to follow because this slip and slide mirrors a very real shift whereby the operating cultural logic of media in the digital age subsumes the figurative to the literal.

Ironically—or appropriately—the ubiquitous standalone textual ellipsis on our digital screens is also a rhetorical ellipsis: in Google Chat, the typing awareness indicator reads “Jane is typing … ” but in iMessaging and Facebook chats, the words are dropped, leaving us with just three dots to signify the same concept. This is what I mean by the literal subsuming the figurative or rhetorical; the literal ellipsis largely obscures its own ellipticality. Punctuation marks in general now appear frequently across our visual fields and are more obviously visual symbols of textuality, decontextualized from their places between words.

The recurring theme of ellipses—rhetorical or literal, cinematic or digital—is to signal that there is image or language we are not seeing. The marks paradoxically make this invisibility visible, shoring up the social anxieties of communication.

Lauren Berlant poetically restages some of the many concepts animated by the ellipsis that have emerged in this discussion, which, following her, we might observe as the unassuming three dots’ alluring assymetricality:

The thing about an ellipsis is that it has a set of contradictory meanings.
An ellipsis is a sentence that I don’t end because … I don’t know how to.
An ellipsis is a sentence I don’t end because … you know what I mean.
An ellipsis is a figure of return that isn’t symmetrical.
Ellipsis might be a figure of loss or plenitude: Sometimes it is more efficient to go dot dot dot. Sometimes it’s also a way of signaling an elision. Sometimes the referent is beyond words. [5]


Jeff Scheible is author of Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation. He is assistant professor of cinema studies at Purchase College, State University of New York.

“Jeff Scheible argues that when writing—and all of culture—is undergoing radical change through the overwhelming adoption of networked and programmable media, it is possible to detect and analyze these changes in the encompassing details, in the cultural logic of punctuation, for example. This book is highly engaging.” —John Cayley, Brown University


[1] danah boyd, “Participating in the Always On Lifestyle”
[2] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 194.
[3] Linda Williams, “Of Kisses and Ellipses: The Long Adolescence of American Movies,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 304-05.
[4] Laurent Berlant, “As told to Andy Campbell,” http://artforum.com/words/id=45109
[4] Laurent Berlant, “As told to Andy Campbell,” http://artforum.com/words/id=45109

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