Why Do Young People Use Commas So Weirdly?

If you’ve seen people using the comma ellipsis and think they’re making a mistake,,, they’re not.
Young man using his phone outside

You don’t have to look far on the internet to see people using language weirdly. Not so much on official-looking websites, but on social media, Millennials and Gen Zers seem to be straying further and further from standard punctuation and spelling. Sometimes these differences seem logical, like not using capital letters because it’s quicker to not hit the “shift” key. But other times,,, it can seem a little stranger. Oh, you’ve never heard of a comma ellipsis? Well then,,,,

The comma ellipsis in its current form is a pretty new phenomenon, and it’s not used by many people (yet). This means it’s not easy to document. While it exists mostly on Twitter and Tumblr, searches on those sites don’t even allow you to search for punctuation. And when looking at how language changes, punctuation gets less attention than more pronounced features like grammar and slang.

Looking at the emerging comma ellipsis can teach us a lot about how young people use punctuation in informal writing to convey tone. But before we can get to that, we have to look at the origins of the ellipsis.

The First Ellipsis (That We Know Of)

The ellipsis first started peppering English writing in the late 16th century. The first ellipses didn’t use periods at all, however. Anne Toner, author of Ellipsis in English Literature, points to the play Andria, written by Terence and translated into English by Maurice Kyffin as the first use of “ellipsis,” but it marks omitted speech with hyphens, not dots. This marked an important point where punctuation started to be used to mark some sort of absence in the text.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the period ellipsis came into vogue, and by that time the idea of using punctuation to mark gaps and abrupt endings was common. The hyphens (-) evolved into longer dashes (—), which are still used today to mark a sudden stop in writing or speech.

The ellipsis has many uses, but it’s important to differentiate two of the main ones. The first is the ellipsis to show that something has been elided, which could be used, for example, when quoting someone to represent omitted words or phrases. The second use is for when someone trails off in speech, which can convey a lot in writing. There is a huge difference, for example, between getting a text that says “okay” and one that says “okay…” And it’s this latter use that has led to one of the most poignant questions of our time.

Why Do Older Generations Use So Many Ellipses?

Yes, this is a generalization, but it’s a noted phenomenon. People all over Twitter have been noting it for a while. Take this one tweet as a representative example:

While older generations think this sounds fine, younger people tend to read ellipses as ominous. I, for example, had a boss who always ended emails with ellipses, and nothing sends shivers down my spine more than seeing an email end with “We should meet soon…”

A 2018 article in The Outline tried to tackle the root of the ellipsis phenomenon, and hit upon a basic generational divide. While millennials see warning signs implied by what’s omitted in the ellipsis, older generations see them as a neutral trailing off in speech. “See you around.” sounds to some people as too serious and finite, and so they opt for “See you around…” even though that sounds like a murder threat to other people.

Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author of Because Internet, points to a slightly different (but related) reason. She went back and decided to see if these ellipses show up before the internet, and it turns out they do. And they show up a lot in a place where informal writing was common: postcards. Postcard writers would often use ellipses (as well as other repeated punctuation) to connect thoughts and write letters. She goes on to write, “Other genres of informal writing also show dashes or ellipses as a generic separation character, especially when space is constrained.”

These text ellipses allow people to string informal, incomplete thoughts together without wrangling them into formal punctuation. They aren’t so much a trailing-off as a brief pause in a stream of consciousness. For a generation that has never used them in that way, their proliferation can easily be read as ominousness.

Young people do use period ellipses, but they’re confined to a smaller set of cases. Where many older generations use the period ellipsis to connect thoughts, younger people tend to use their new Swiss army punctuation: the em dash (—). For the most part, it stands for where someone would actually pause or trail off in speech. So what happens when younger people want to convey a dramatic trailing off? That brings us to the comma ellipsis.

What Is The Comma Ellipsis?

Older generations always hate when younger generations change language, and that’s a fact. There is not enough space here to explain why that’s a losing battle, but be assured that no one will ever stop language change. The comma ellipsis, like other linguistic features young people invented, gets plenty of pushback. Questions about the comma ellipsis on Reddit or Stack Exchange have received rage-filled responses about how they’re used by people who are stupid and don’t know how to punctuate properly.

The comma ellipsis is not caused by someone missing the period button and hitting the comma one instead. One answer on the Reddit question by user “hagearty” explains why people use the comma ellipsis instead of a period ellipsis sometimes:

aestethic and comedic value. they express a different voice over text.
“and i’m like,,,,”
“and i’m like…”
i read the first one as being more dramatic, more annoyed. the second expressed an ellipsis’ original function of trailing off. I use it mainly over text, but imo i use it because the people i text use it so, kinda up to the social aspect of language.
and yeah, sometimes it’s just kinda goofy. Brandon Wardell’s twitter is an example of that.

As this answer implies, the comma ellipsis likely evolved as a direct response to the period ellipsis. As … became the formal option for pausing and trailing off, ,,, became an alternative that allowed for a more emotional reading or, counterintuitively, a more comedic reading. Commas, just by not being periods, call more attention to themselves, which conveys to the reader that something else is going on. The comma ellipsis can say either “I’m trailing off because I’m upset!” or “I’m trailing off or pausing but also I’m joking!” Ideally, surrounding context clues will help you distinguish which one it is.

Where this new ellipsis came from in the first place is another question, and it’s hard to pin down. One of the leading possibilities is that it was created in queer communities on Twitter and Tumblr, which these Tumblr posts suggest.

Two tumblr posts describing the comma ellipsis

This theory is likely, especially because queer people have been on the cutting edge of linguistic innovation for decades. It may be hard to find the first comma ellipsis on the internet, but its modern use has mostly flourished in queer online communities.

The spread of the comma ellipsis is because it is filling a tonal need in people’s informal writing. While grammar classes may have taught you that punctuation is a mathematical matter that always has the right answer, it has historically never been that way. When Maurice Kyffin used the first hyphen ellipsis to indicate a pause, he was using what was at hand to create new ways to communicate. In that same vein, young people are innovating with comma ellipses. And no punctuation mark is safe,,,

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