Rosen’s Tick (Or, The Rise of the Militant Wing of the Ellipsis Preservation Society)

The divine Lynne Truss, patron saint of sticklers everywhere, frets thusly in her best-selling book Eats, Shoots & Leaves:

“How long will it be before a mainstream publisher allows an illiterate title into print? How long before the last few punctuation sticklers are obliged to take refuge together in caves?” (page 28)

And for a long time, I must admit, I have fretted with her. But surely (I told myself) such worries only arose from my lack of a sense of proportion, which as Truss herself noted, is usually in deficit among sticklers. With these and other like thoughts I naively comforted myself, not knowing that my worst fears (and Truss’) would soon become bitter reality.

So it was that, in my innocence, I picked up a second-hand copy of William Rosen’s recent book, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe (New York: Viking, 2007). A promising subject, I thought; after all, there aren’t all that many popular treatments of the reign of Emperor St Justinian, or of Byzantine topics, more generally. What I witnessed inside those covers, however, was ghastlier than a thousand ghouls. It started in page 1, with this:

“The best solutions to three-or-more-body problems, in fact, are only approximations . . . though, with the help of powerful computers, those approximations can be extremely precise.”

And it repeated itself constantly, every few pages, up until the very last page of text, where we read:

“The invading army consisted of Crimean Mongols and soldiers from Venice . . . like its bitter rival Genoa, one of the Italian city-states that formed in the peninsula as imperial control receded.” (page 325)

Yes, my gentle snowflakes: Rosen consistently treats the ellipsis, to borrow Truss’ expression, “as a subspecies of the dash”! Well, color me dismayed. I cannot think of a single more distracting or annoying bad habit of some people who can otherwise write well. At once I turned to the acknowledgements to find out who were the unfortunate editors (of a mainstream publisher, no less!) that would allow so ill-punctuated a book to see the light of day, only to read this:

“After several decades of editing and publishing books by others, one acquires some unfortunate habits, such as reading a book’s acknowledgments first, sometimes to acquire professional intelligence, sometimes to decode the ways in which authors express gratitude.” (page 327)

And sometimes to find out that a grievously transgressing author is a former long-time editor. I felt my heart drop. He was one of us! And not only that, his book apparently received lavish editorial attention:

“As a one time editor myself, I have reminded authors beyond counting that everyone needs editing. I have been both happy and fortunate to be reminded of it myself, this time by Will Sulkin at Jonathan Cape, and especially Rick Kot at Viking, men of skill taste, and great kindness. Their respective staffs—Rosalind Porter at Cape, Alessandra Lusardi and Laura Tisdel at Viking (as well as Jennifer Tait, who supervised the book’s production)—have been unfailingly helpful and intimidatingly efficient.” (pages 327-8)

But apparently none of them efficient enough to spot scores upon scores of misused ellipses, or else (and perhaps more likely) not aggressive enough to prevail.

In the end, the book whose mainstream publication signals the imminent exile of all sticklers to the dens and caves of the earth was written by an editor, and it did not sport an illiterate title for all to see, but rather hid its persistent, illiterate use of punctuation between its covers. I suppose, however, that we should count our blessings: the title could well have been Justinian’s . . . Flea.

(As for the actual subject matter of the book, I am afraid I cannot comment, since my shock has thus far prevented me from engaging it at any level beyond the punctuational.)

Note. Any parties wishing to engage my editorial services on account of the manifestation of my inner stickler are certainly welcome to do so; for my part, I assure them that I will do everything in my power so that they may become living illustrations of Dr Johnson’s definition of the word patron: “A wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery.”

19 responses to “Rosen’s Tick (Or, The Rise of the Militant Wing of the Ellipsis Preservation Society)

  1. Well, as you know from conversating [yes, that was intentional] with me in Yahoo Messenger, I often close with the ellipsis…

    …so I guess I can’t be too mad at this guy…



  2. I often don’t know when to use a small dash-a longer dash (emdash?)—a semicolon; a colon: or just start a new sentence (and I tend to use parenthesis too much).

    I would hope they at least spelled every word correctly in this book. I’m reading The Symphony of Scripture between commentaries and I saw “Galations” among others. I’ve done that myself … but I don’t write no books.


  3. Reminds me of the agony I experienced reading In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ by Philip R. Davies, editor for Sheffield, the book’s publisher. All I could come up with was that they decided to save money by letting him edit his own work–which still wouldn’t say much for his ability as an editor.


  4. Jeff> Ugh, "Galations"! Thankfully, everything appears to be rightly spelled in this book, as I recall.

    Trevor> Yes, I know exactly what you mean about that book! Though in defense of Davies (if he indeed edited himself), I know from bitter experience that it is awfully difficult to edit one's own work because, knowing what the text should look like, one can easily gloss over errors. (Oh, and perhaps you’d be interested to know that there’s a festschrift for Davies in the works, which will be entitled, hilariously, In Search of Philip R. Davies. ;-)

    Iyov> The "Blogger ellipsis" is a matter of hot debate within the Ellipsis Preservation Society, and we have not yet taken a position on the matter. I'll get back to you after our annual meeting. ;-)


  5. You know, the Greeks (I mean the Greeks of today) love to use the ellipsis constantly. I recall a package of crackers with instructions for using them as hors d’oeuvres that read something like, ‘Just put a bit of meat and cheese on them, place them in a circle on a tray and . . . enjoy!’ Why? why?


  6. Scripture Zealot, here’s a rundown on the dashes:
    1.) There is the em-dash, so-called from its width being roughly that of the character M. This is the only dash proper for use in sentences.
    2.) There is the en-dash, so-called from its width like that of the character N. This is to be used in ranges of numbers.
    3.) There is the hyphen, which is on your keyboard, used to hyphenate words. (Yes, that’s a tautology, but I’m sure you know what I mean).

    Esteban, I wouldn’t be able to resist filling in those ellipses: “The invading army consisted of Crimean Mongols and soldiers from Venice [ —a city of traitorous, worthless, opportunistic thieves, their trollopy mistresses, and their illegitimate children, being thus well-paired with blood-drinking barbarian Mongols— ] like its bitter rival Genoa, one of the Italian city-states that formed in the peninsula as imperial control receded.”

    Look at it as an opportunity, not a curse!


  7. Thanks for the education. That’s very helpful. I had to look up tautology and after I looked it I can see what you mean.


  8. So, something good does come out of Puerto Rico! (With reference to “Can something good come out of Nazareth?” horribly paraphrased, but with the best of intentions (the kind by which the road to h_ll is paved)).

    Rdr. George/Yuri
    (Forgetting all the languages he (n)ever knew.)


  9. Kevin> Brilliant!!! I think you just may have turned the whole thing around for me. I have so much to learn from you! ;-)

    George> Well, I don't know about that, but I do know what you were thinking yonder under the fig tree… ;-) Thanks for stopping by!


  10. I ruined my feeble attempt at humor by omitting a word:

    “I had to look up tautology and after I looked it I can see what you mean.”

    Should be:

    “I had to look up tautology and after I looked it up I can see what you mean.”

    Puerto Ricans rock.



  11. I’m afraid it’s true about the Greeks, my friend! You should have a friendly chat with my friend Philip who’s just finished editing an English translation of a Greek book about Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. I think there were at least a few ellipses in every paragraph.


  12. Yes, Esteban! I’m always happy to oblige our Mutual Education Society’s needs!

    Scripture Zealot, I got it. I didn’t notice the word was missing at first. Very droll! (Which gets you high marks!)


  13. I’m learning so many new words on these blogs! I’m a droll autodidact who has taught himself the art of tautology.

    I’d like to start the Mutual Edufication Society.


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