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Anne Toner, Ellipsis in English Literature. Signs of Omission

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017
Pierre Labrune
Bibliographical reference

Anne Toner, Ellipsis in English Literature. Signs of Omission, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 255 pages with a bibliography and an index, 2017, ISBN-10: 1107421322 ISBN-13: 978-1107421325

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1Anne Toner's monography started as a doctoral dissertation and looks into the evolutions of typography when it comes to signifying omissions or silences. As she aptly phrases it herself, the book revolves around a paradox as it “is a book about ….” (1), i.e about making the unsaid lapses in enunciation visible. Anne Toner endeavours to account for stylistic innovations when it comes to representing silence in fiction by studying transformations in publishing practices in a long-term perspective. That is why the time span covered by her book is quite long, starting from the late sixteenth century and ending in the second half of the twentieth century. However, due to Anne Toner's research interests and to the specificity of the topic of dashes, asterisks and “dot, dot, dot”, the books mostly focusses on the evolutions of the use of such typographical marks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moreover, even though Anne Toner reminds her reader of the scholarly origins of dashes and asterisks, as they were used at first in editions of classical texts to signify missing or illegible parts in manuscripts, her main interest is narrative fiction and its relationships to the reader. As she says:

In many respects, while telling the story of the development of ellipsis, this book also narrates a history of the novel through a punctuation mark. Innovations and trends in ellipsis often relate to larger historical and narrative trends, and they show how novelists have used punctuation to advance as well as test the form's representational powers.(22)

2As the book bridges more than four centuries of literary and publishing history, it is chiefly organised along chronological lines. The reader is invited to discover the long history of typographical marks of ellipsis, from their progressive intrusion in fiction to their normalisation and complete acceptance, passing through numerous controversies on the propriety of such signs.

3The introduction tackles general issues surrounding ellipsis in spoken language and its representation in writing. Anne Toner highlights the fact that ellipses and interruptions are fundamental in natural spoken speech and that trying to transcribe them in written form is in itself a paradox. Dashes and asterisks are meant to suggest the existence of paralinguistic phenomena but they are conventional signs as well. They “intimate rather than delineate the paralinguistic” (5), or, as stated shortly later, ellipses in literary texts are quite ambiguous as “ [an] unfinished sentence can be judged from two extremes then, as a sign of linguistic failure and linguistic artistry”(6). Moreover, Anne Toner suggests that the humble dash can be a good means to have a glimpse at the complex relationships between authors and their publishers as it is often difficult to know, above all when studying Early Modern literary works, whether the author, the printer or the book-seller were responsible for punctuation.

4The first chapter of the book is about what Anne Toner believes to be the first occurrences of expressive – i.e. not philologically significant – marks of ellipsis in printed material. Fittingly enough, the first appearance of a dash meant to point that a sentence is not finished can be found, as far as Anne Toner's wide research goes, in a play, namely an English translation of Terence's Andria published in 1588. The researcher also mentions that in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the use of expressive marks of omission was not yet recorded in grammar books which only recognized editorial ellipses.

5The relevance of studying typographical history is then revealed as Anne Toner turns to the expressive use of dashes in two different editions of Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour and in Shakespeare's King Lear. The folio version of Ben Jonson's play, published after the quarto version and meant for a wealthier audience, contains for instance more dashes than the quarto version as characters are quite often interrupted whenever they swear. This editorial change is all the more significant as censorship legislation was passed between the publication of the quarto and that of the folio. To Anne Toner, the proliferation of dashes in the folio edition can therefore be interpreted as a subtle exploitation of censorship by Ben Jonson as the omitted swear words are all the more noticeable even though there is no explicit infringement of any rule. As to King Lear, Anne Toner considers that ellipses and omissions are major themes in the play itself, in addition to their use in the different printed versions of the tragedy. The scene in which Gloucester is blinded, for instance, is full of ellipses, no matter what version of the play is considered. It is as if the literal darkness experienced by Gloucester was mimicked by typography when his sentences are brutally interrupted by dashes. The end of this first chapter considers the gradual normalisation of the use of dashes instead of hyphens to signify interruptions in printed plays.

6The second chapter is devoted to the uses and abuses of ellipsis marks in eighteenth-century novels. Anne Toner is particularly interested in the intertwined legitimizations of the novel and of the dash. Ellipses exemplify the paradoxes facing novel writers in the eighteenth century as they allow for a better retranscription of speech and action while highlighting the artificiality of the process. The best example of this ambiguity of dashes and other asterisks is to be found in the works of an author known for his exuberant use of interruptions, dashes and digressions, that is Laurence Sterne. The more Tristram Shandy tries to be as comprehensive as possible in the retranscription of speech and interruptions, the more opaque and confused his narrative becomes. The apparent refinement of mimesis promised by the adoption of new typographical signs reveals the everlasting problem of “writing's representational abilities” (54) in fine.

7The researcher recalls the stigma associated to dashes and asterisks in the first half of the eighteenth century as they were considered tokens of the new print culture producing hack-writers for Jonathan Swift for instance. Anne Toner next considers the specific role played by ellipses by the two major fiction pioneers in the 1740s, namely Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.

8Even though Henry Fielding was not a great user of dashes and rarely interrupted dialogues in his works, he was nonetheless a great practitioner of ellipsis from a structural point of view. He theorised the importance of chapter divisions and valued ellipses as necessary tools in terms of plot. In the liminal chapters of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, he insisted on readers participation and on the need to think and meditate between chapters, when the page is blank.

9Anne Toner then turnes to Samuel Richardson whose Clarissa put ellipses at the centre of his plot. The epistolary form means that narrative action only takes place between the different letters and is always experienced as a sort of blank. Besides, the interruption in dialogues and in the very writing of letters signified by dashes or by specific typographical marks “are part of a narrative trajectory in which we see the disabling of the heroine's verbal agency” (68). Close attention is paid to the typographical specificities of the original editions of Clarissa, closely monitored by Samuel Richardson who was a printer by trade. Each different character has a specific typographical mark to signify breaks in the writing of letters, Clarissa being characterised by the rosette and Lovelace by asterisks. Significantly enough, the immoral and corrupting rake is closely associated with the sign conventionally used to censor improper words.

10This second chapter ends with a quick overview of the evolution of attitudes concerning dashes and asterisks in grammar books and manuals of punctuation throughout the century. As the novel and its interrupted conversations developed and as sensibility, with its insistence on unspeakable emotions, became increasingly popular, dashes were finally accepted as standard signs of punctuation.

11The third chapter elaborates on the centrality of ellipses in Gothic fiction. The debates on the propriety of interruptions shifted as the issue no longer was on the absolute propriety of dashes but concerned the suitability of blanks and brutal breaks at the end of novels. The fashion of sentimental novels first, and next of Gothic fiction, created the conditions for a flurry of dashes and asterisks as climactic events could never be properly expressed. They reduced their victims to utter silence. Anne Toner documents the changing attitudes to the incompleteness of Gothic pages at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She particularly analyses a now almost forgotten text, “Sir Bertrand. A Fragment”, a short tale by John Aikin which has long been attributed to Anna Barbauld, before being rightly attributed to Anna Aikin. She published it in 1773 and it is famous for its absence of ending. Anne Toner claims “Sir Bertrand” should be read as a pastiche of Gothic fiction questioning the legitimacy of such processes as dramatic ellipsis underlined by dashes rather than as a mere exploitation of those tropes. Even though “Sir Bertrand” was widely imitated and long considered a model for tales of terror, Anne Toner subtly shows that the text itself is much more ambivalent. Its inconclusiveness is meant to stress the complex motives of readers of sensational fiction. “It dramatizes the process of reading rather than any outcome” (102) and therefore signals the somehow baser instincts at work when reading for the sake of surprise and terror. Anne Toner suggests that the progressive generalisation of omniscient narration, particularly in the works of Jane Austen further contributed to progressive moderation in the use of brutal interruptions in novels since the “experiential lacunae of first-person narrations c[ould] be minimized” (95).

12The fourth chapter explores the standardization of ellipsis marks with the invention of new printing techniques in the nineteenth century as well as their use as the novel became a major genre. Anne Toner analyses John Wilson's 1844 Treatise on Grammatical Punctuation which remained one of the most influential manual of punctuation throughout the century. As a printer, John Wilson provides a strict set of rules allowing for a complete standardisation of ellipsis signs, distinguishing long and short dashes, or “em” and “en” dashes, the length of the dash being correlated to the duration of the interruption it signifies. The normalisation of punctuation entailed a progressive exclusion of asterisks considered too eccentric. As a result, asterisks were deliberately used by authors to suggest shifts in temporal or spatial organization. In the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, entrance into the other world, whether it be down the rabbit-hole or through the looking-glass, is visualised by a line of asterisks on the page.

13After this historical study of typography and its rules, Anne Toner considers the key-roles played by marks of ellipsis in several canonical novels of the Victorian era. George Eliot's first works are dwelled upon as one can find many ellipsis points rather than dashes in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss. However, George Eliot almost ceased to use ellipsis points in her later novels and this change is seen as a progressive departure from the influence of sensationalism. In keeping with this dialectics of dissimulation and revelation at work when using marks of ellipsis in speeches, Anne Toner next focusses on the importance of ellipsis points in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins and more generally in detective fiction. The final solution to the case in Wilkie Collins' novel is given in the ramblings of a dying man as the writer cautiously fills in every blank in this confused utterance. The use of ellipsis points in this context plays on clear and unequivocal signs of insanity and mystery. They allow the final resolution to take place while denoting the character's irremediable lapse into the realm of obscurity, whether literally or figuratively speaking. This swift but nonetheless stimulating overview of dashes and ellipsis points in Victorian fiction ends on an author who was deemed obscure because of his use of “...”, namely George Meredith who is said to anticipate modernist writings as he mimicked the workings of thought as precisely as possible, even when thought and speech faltered thus reducing characters to aphasia. George Meredith innovated widely in the transcription of dialogues as he tended to register every single pause and hesitation while focussing on the specific moments when language seems inefficient. Or, in Anne Toner’s words, “the precipices and chasms that punctuate the pages of […] Meredith's fiction […] bring us to contemplate ‘the brink of expression’” (148-149).

14The last chapter dedicated to “Ellipsis and Modernity” focusses on the final triumph of ellipsis points over dashes in the narrative fiction of the first half of the twentieth century which affect the representation of the inner workings of the mind. In The Inheritors conjointly written by Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, reviewers were shocked by conspicuous ellipsis points. Significantly enough, Virginia Woolf explained that “the Gothic devices of the past, the ghouls and mouldering barons, have been replaced by the modern mysteries of psychoanalysis and science” (156). Giving new attention to the subtle changes in one's consciousness meant that ellipsis points became all the more relevant as they signified the hesitations and jumps of thought. Ellipsis was viewed as characteristic of female writing. This gendered analysis allows Anne Toner to suggest a deliberate overuse of “dot, dot, dot” in Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf to fight “against the heavy and literal guns of patriarchy” (164).

15Anne Toner concludes by underlining the usefulness of ellipsis points in modern drama, as it allows the playwright to indicate the duration of the pauses as if the script was a musical score. She also wonders whether we are not living in a world where ellipsis points tend to be overtly and commonly used in electronic/digital communication. The adoption by most messaging applications of ellipsis points as a conventional sign to suggest that someone is typing tends to justify this assumption, to the present reviewer.

16In its very all-encompassing nature, this monography is doomed to limitations as Anne Toner willingly admits in her introduction. However, the present reviewer found the constant movement between specific analysis on the history of typography and literary considerations on the role played by those innovations in fiction to be very stimulating. It calls for other researchers to further and deepen the scope of this exploration. Even if the importance of ellipsis in fiction has been widely discussed at least since the publication of Umberto Eco's Lector in Fabula in 1979, Anne Toner opens a new field of enquiry by focussing on the materiality of ellipses in British literature. Would her findings be relevant in other non-British works? Indeed, she surmises that the progressive use of “...” instead of “–” can be traced back to the influence of continental printers on British booksellers. However, the influence seems reciprocal as the dash became increasingly used instead of the ellipsis points in French fiction in the twentieth century.

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Electronic reference

Pierre Labrune, Anne Toner, Ellipsis in English Literature. Signs of OmissionSillages critiques [Online], 25 | 2018, Online since 01 November 2018, connection on 13 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Pierre Labrune

Lettres Sorbonne University (VALE EA 4085)

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