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Punctuation as Social Action: The Ellipsis as a Discourse Marker in Computer-Mediated Communication

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Punctuation as Social Action: The Ellipsis as a Discourse Marker
in Computer-Mediated Communication
JOSHUA RACLAW
University of Colorado
1. Sociolinguistic Variation in Internet Discourse
The last decade has seen a tremendous increase in the use of computer-mediated
communication (CMC) within wired societies, and with this increased visibility
has come a growing scholarly interest in the linguistic structures of internet
discourse. The majority of research in this area has been sociolinguistic in nature,
though it has dealt largely with interaction management and the sequential
organization of talk rather than the specific linguistic variables used by speaker to
constitute online styles and registers. Those studies that take the latter approach
have typically presented these variables as features of a more generalized online
language, and attributed their use broadly to speakers operating within a certain
medium of CMC, such as email or electronic bulletin boards (e.g. Collot and
Belmore’s (1996) electronic language, Naomi Baron’s (2002) email style, Crys-
tal’s (2004) netspeak). Even when variation among speakers operating within the
same medium or community of practice is noted by a researcher, such as Cherny’s
(1999) acknowledgment that certain syntactic and morphological phenomena of
MUD discourse only occurs in the speech of particular speakers, this phenomenon
is often placed in the periphery of the work and the researcher avoids detailed
accounts of possible motivations for variation in online discourse (though see
Paolillo 2001 and Squires 2005).
This paper does not intend to condemn these prior approaches, as they have
produced necessary research on otherwise undocumented linguistic practices. It
can be argued, however, that they have left little room for conceptualizing
changes in style and register within CMC. This has left a notable gap in the
literature of the field, though one that is rapidly being filled by contemporary
scholars approaching internet discourse with these processes in mind. This paper
aims to not only contribute to this body of work, but to expand the scope of
variationist work on CMC by considering the following premises: one, that forms
of punctuation, especially when used in ways that stray from their traditional uses
in written texts, can be studied as variables that speakers use to signal distinct
ways of talking; two, that speakers switch into these ways of talking for reasons
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BLS 32, No 1 2006. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3765/bls.v32i1.3469 (published by the Berkeley
Linguistics Society and the Linguistic Society of America)
Joshua Raclaw
similar to those described in sociolinguistic analyses of spoken discourse, such as
situational and metaphorical forms of codeswitching or styleshifting (Blom and
Gumperz 1972); and three, that the use of punctuation in non-standard capacities
can be attributed to the pursuit of covert prestige (Labov 1972, Trudgill 1974)
linked to these forms, to an association with the positive ideologies surrounding
the use of a punctuation marker, or possibly to both.
2. IRC and Prototypical Synchronicity
The data used in this analysis is taken from the logfiles of 5 twenty-minute,
naturally occurring English conversations held through Internet Relay Chat, with
a total of 39 speakers contributing to the corpus. IRC is a chatroom style of what I
call prototypically synchronous computer-mediated communication; though a
brief description of this designation will be provided here, a more thorough
explanation of the features of IRC can be found in Werry (1996).
The prototypical synchronicity of a medium, either synchronous or asynchro-
nous, reflects whether the structures of the medium seem aimed at accommodat-
ing talk that occurs in approximate real-time or at less immediate intervals.
Chatrooms, instant messages, and similar mediums are considered prototypically
synchronous because speakers can potentially see the discourse as it unfolds
directly into the chatroom or instant message box, allowing for responses to
utterances to be constructed immediately after a previous speaker has taken a turn
at talk. This process is contrasted with prototypically asynchronous mediums such
as message boards and email, where previous talk must first be accessed by
actively opening a message thread or email before a response can even begin to be
constructed, and future talk will likewise be accessible only by first opening the
new email or thread. As spoken discourse seems to be the model for how re-
searchers are defining CMC synchronicity, it can be argued that prototypically
synchronous media are better equipped to approximate that model than prototypi-
cally asynchronous forms. This is reflected in a general tendency (and in certain
circumstances an expectation, though this is not always the case) for speakers
operating within prototypically synchronous mediums to interact in approximate
real-time with their interlocutors, even if this tendency is by no means universal
across speakers or even across interactions. Although researchers are not in
complete agreement over whether prototypically synchronous communications
use the standards of either spoken discourse or of written text as a model for
shaping internet discourse, the present research supports the view that online talk
is likely shaped by a combination of the standards of both (Baron 1998).
3. The Ellipsis as Conjoining Marker
The functions of ellipses in internet discourse are varied, and can be simply
categorized by whether they adhere to the marker’s traditional uses within written
English (i.e. to indicate deleted material, to mark hesitation or silence, to suggest
unfinished thoughts) or are more innovatively employed by speakers. For the
purposes of tracing the origins of use of the ellipsis within CMC, it would also be
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Punctuation as Social Action
helpful to make a distinction between those uses of the marker that have differed
from standard uses but have appeared historically in various written representa-
tions of speech, such as those appearing in novels, comic books, and closed-
captioned television. It would be equally helpful to note cross-linguistic uses of
the ellipsis in various written formats, such as its role in Japanese manga to
represent speechlessness and implicate surprise, guilt, or incredibility, as potential
influences on the use of ellipses within English internet discourse. Due to con-
straints on space, however, this analysis will consider these latter distinctions best
saved for future research, and will focus instead on a wide-spread online use of
the ellipsis that can be categorized as straying from its traditional applications
within standardized writing practices: as a conjoining marker between grammati-
cal and other constituents.
The first use of an ellipsis as a conjoining marker functions to connect two
grammatical constituents within the same utterance, acting much as a “replace-
ment” for a lexical conjunction or relative pronoun. Similarly, ellipses can be used
as a replacement of sorts for other forms of punctuation, such as commas and
periods, so as to connect any number of other constituents within an utterance.
(1) <marine> thats scary foreman...I hope its not that big
(2) <yahoo> you mean to tell me cutie...you don't have any old shoes
(3) <modern> lets get ice cream…pickles…soda :)
(4) <wolfen> I usually go for a slght undrstatement myself...thats jst me…
In fragment 1, for example, an ellipsis is used in place of what would likely be a
comma or period used to connect the two clauses spoken by marine. Fragment 2
shows an ellipsis standing in for what would likely be a relative pronoun used to
connect the clauses. In fragment 3, the first ellipsis can be read as functioning as
would either a comma or a coordinating conjunction, while the second ellipsis
likely functions as a coordinating conjunction; in this case, these conjunctions
would most likely be read similarly to and by other speakers. The first ellipsis of
fragment 4 appears to also function in place of a conjunction to join the two
clauses, though this would likely be read as but. The second ellipsis is used here
as end punctuation similarly to how a period might function. Although this might
be read as one of the standard uses of the ellipsis, that of representing unfinished
thoughts or speech, wolfen does not speak for another 23 lines after this utterance,
and that is in response to an unrelated topic. Similarly, other speakers from the
data would frequently use an ellipsis as end punctuation without orienting to the
marker’s possible interpretation as leaving the speaker with more to say.
While the above examples lack a specific pattern based on the syntax of an
utterance for determining how frequently an ellipsis would be used rather than a
conjunction, relative pronoun, or other form of punctuation, there are specific
types of utterances that the data show to be vastly more likely to contain an
ellipsis than any other.
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Joshua Raclaw
(5) <pumpkin> babez...your so damn mean
(6) <rockout> lol..you better kick Carol out first
(7) <mareena> hey just kidding...huggles
(8) <lovely> w00t....thanks grey
As IRC is a multi-user medium where conversations can potentially involve
dozens of speakers talking at once, users have adopted practices of addressivity in
which they overtly address the recipient of their message within the course of
their turn. Addressivity typically occurs at the beginning or end of an utterance,
and as fragment 5 illustrates, speakers within the corpus frequently separate their
addressivity terms from the rest of their utterances through the use of an ellipsis.
Similarly, fragments 6 and 7 show examples of speakers separating various forms
of textual play, such as written representations of laughter (“lol” or “laughing out
loud”) or of actions such as hugging another speaker (“huggles”), from the
utterances that precede or follow the play. If we conceptualize that the speakers in
these examples are at least partially patterning their discourse after spoken
interactions, it seems likely that they are using the ellipses to separate what would
be the spoken portion of an offline interaction from what would be the extralin-
guistic features. In the case of addressivity, a parallel can be drawn to gesture, eye
gaze, or similar actions used in face-to-face interactions to select the recipient of
an utterance; in the case of textual play, a parallel can be drawn to those actions
that the play represents within the chat, such as laughing or hugging. By using an
ellipsis to separate the two types of constituents within an utterance, it can be
argued that there is a conceptual split for a large number of speakers from the data
between the communicative content of an utterance and the metadiscourse that
accompanies it.
4. Motivations Behind Non-Traditional Use of the Ellipsis
What still remains unanswered is why the speakers cited above use conjoining
marker ellipses rather than lexical constituents or more traditional pieces of
punctuation, as well as why they have chosen to use an ellipsis to separate the
communicative content from the metadiscourse of an utterance. While there are
likely numerous answers to these questions, and even more likely a number of
them that work together in determining the frequent use of the ellipsis in these
capacities, this analysis offers the possibility that the ellipsis has become a
discourse marker among the speakers of many online communities of practice,
and that it has grown to carry various types of prestige among these speakers. It
can be argued that the positive ideologies surrounding the use of the ellipsis, then,
contribute to its frequent use among the speakers from the corpus.
To discuss how these ideologies came about, it is first necessary to consider
the widespread variation in ellipsis use that exists among speakers in online
settings. Though the previous data fragments perhaps hint towards a universality
of their use among all speakers operating in both IRC or in other CMC mediums,
this is far from the case. In the uses of the ellipsis cited above, variation could be
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Punctuation as Social Action
seen in at least three situations that occurred throughout the data: an increase in
ellipsis use could be seen as correlative to a decrease in the formality of an
interaction, and vice versa, signifying a shift in register achieved through the
degree that ellipses were included or excluded within one’s speech; an increase in
use was tied to a type of metaphorical styleshifting, such as that used in a sympa-
thetic speech style; and an increase in use was tied to a type of situational
styleshifting, such as a shift into an ellipsis-heavy speech style when entering a
specific online environment, likely used to signify membership within a particular
community of practice. It is likely that the motivations behind these shifts in
speech style are somehow linked, at least diachronically, and future research
beyond what is posited in this analysis is certainly necessary to more accurately
determine these motivations.
As heavy uses of the ellipsis that stray from the marker’s traditional uses in
written English are seen as marking an informal style of speech in internet dis-
course, illustrated through the correlative relationship between an increase in
formality and a decrease in ellipsis use, it can be argued that the standards of
written discourse are being held as formal, acrolect-type standards for talk online.
This notion is also supported by prescriptivist language ideologies held by nu-
merous speakers that place the standardized writing practices of written English
higher than the more innovative uses found in certain types of internet discourse;
these ideologies are noted, for example, in the abuse of certain players of online
games who make use of “CMC-specific” features in talk that veer from the
standards of written English (Iorio 2005). However, the construal of these types of
features as informal and non-standard may also lead to a type of covert prestige
attached to their use, and it is perhaps this covert prestige that speakers are
tapping into in their use of ellipses in the examples discussed here. However,
there are certainly other CMC-specific features which would be construed by
prescriptivist language ideologies as non-standard and could therefore provide
this same covert prestige, such as orthographic practices that make use of alpha-
numeric homophony (i.e. “cu l8r”) or heavy use of emoticons, and it is likely that
these features are used in concert with ellipses to reflect a particular register or
style within internet discourse.
There is likely another reason, then, either apart from or working in conjunc-
tion with the covert prestige afforded to speakers using ellipsis-heavy styles, why
the ellipses serve in the capacity that they do. The adoption of a sympathetic
speech style through metaphorical styleshifting is one of a number of ways that
speakers can show empathy with another speaker in an interactional environment
where pitch, physical gestures, and other extralinguistic features of the talk are not
available to convey such emotions. One of the style’s most notable and constant
features across interactions is its increased use of ellipses in non-standard fash-
ions, especially as a replacement for standard punctuation (such as periods,
commas, and semi-colons), and its inclusion before question marks.
(9) 148 <genova> yeah pumpkin, pass it over
303
Joshua Raclaw
169 <genova> yum yum its goooooooood. lol
317 <genova> oh honey...are you goign to be all right...?
324 <genova> I know...i’m just sososo sory to hear that... :(
330 <genova> yeah...
336 <genova> well...you kno my number if you need it...
The data in fragment 9 illustrates the progression of genova’s speech into a
sympathetic speech style, a response to news about one of the other speakers in
the chat recently being dumped by her boyfriend occurring during lines 310-314
(omitted for privacy of the speaker). The obvious changes in genova’s speech
style can be seen when comparing lines 148 and 169, which make use of both a
comma and period, to lines 317, 324, and 336, which all make use of ellipses to
connect the grammatical constituents in each utterance as well as to end each
sentence (or to precede the use of a question mark as end punctuation, as seen in
line 317).
The use of an ellipsis in such a style can be attributed to some of the ideolo-
gies surrounding its use, described through interviews with speakers from the IRC
data who claimed it showed that the speaker adopting the style was attentive and
listening to his or her interlocutor, and that users generally felt more comfortable
with a speaker who adopted this style. The interviewed speakers unanimously
agreed that this positive effect on the perception of a speaker using this style also
carried over to speakers who did not switch into ellipsis-heavy style due to a
metaphorical styleshift, but who frequently made use of ellipses in non-standard
ways as a part of another type of register or style. These ideas about ellipsis use
can likely be traced back to one of the standard uses of an ellipsis, to represent
silence, as a perception of silence achieved while still engaging in conversation
could likely convey the idea that the speaker is actively listening to his or her
interlocutor. Since speakers from the data hold the idea that these qualities carry
over to speakers who make use of ellipses in non-standard ways, even without
switching into a sympathetic speech style, it is likely that the frequent use of the
ellipses in the non-standard ways illustrated in fragments 1 through 8 can be tied
not only to the possibility of seeking covert prestige among other members of the
chat, but to the pursuit of appearing as conscientious speakers to their chat part-
ners or even to an association with the positive ideologies surrounding the marker
that originally sprang from this type of perception.
5. Conclusion
There is still a great deal of work to be conducted on the study of linguistic
variables and sociolinguistic variation within online discourse; the brief analysis
offered here is intended as an exploratory work into the use of only one such
variable, and barely scratches the surface in the documentation of its variation in
use among speakers. It should be noted that the data discussed here was taken
from but one online community of practice, and that the examples shown above
were largely from core members of this group rather than peripheral members or
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Punctuation as Social Action
first-time visitors to the chatroom. The exclusion of non-peripheral members in
the analysis was not explicitly the choice of the researcher, but the result of
ellipsis use in the capacities described above occurring almost exclusively in the
speech of the chatroom’s regulars. Though this variation in use was noted indi-
rectly in the attribution of increased ellipsis use to possibly signify membership in
a community of practice, it is deserving of much more detailed attention in further
research than could be provided here. Additionally, discussions of the use of
ellipsis in other IRC communities, as well as broader studies grounded in data
taken from similarly prototypically synchronous mediums and in prototypically
asynchronous mediums are viable and quite necessary directions for future work.
It is also the hope of the researcher that studies of punctuation other than the
ellipsis and discussions of their role within the discourse of speakers operating in
all areas of the online sphere will be conducted by linguists interested in the
workings of internet discourse.
6. Acknowledgments
I am extremely grateful to Kira Hall, Nichole Hansen, Lauren Squires, and Jenny
Davis for their time spent providing generous feedback on previous drafts of this
paper. Any remaining weaknesses are solely my responsibility.
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Joshua Raclaw
Dept of Linguistics
295 UCB – Hellems 290
University of Colorado
Boulder, CO 80309
joshua.raclaw@colorado.edu
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Stylistic practices in e-mail reflect an amalgam of social presuppositions about usage conventions and individual strategies for handling a new language medium. To understand how contemporary e-mail patterns have been forged and where they might be heading, this study examines the ways in which newly enfranchised language users in the past have balanced externally generated prescriptions for linguistic style with user-generated coping strategies in constructing spoken and written messages. Popular letter writing, the early telegraph, and early telephone behavior offer useful precedents for thinking about both e-mail messages themselves and the potential effects of language technology on broader language change.
Thesis
This work is a study in urban dialectology, sociological linguistics, and generative phonology. It takes the form of an urban dialect survey of the city of norwich, England, and is particularly concerned with the correlation between phonetic and phonological aspects of English, as it is spoken in Norwich, and various sociological parameters.
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Introduction With the expanding amount of information and applications available through the internet in the past decade, computer mediated communication (CMC) in general and instant messaging (IM) in particular have exploded in popularity as forms of interpersonal interaction in wired societies. Though popular for many years among younger cohorts such as teenagers, IM is also prevalent among adults, even in workplace environments (Lenhart, Lewis, & Rainie, 2001; Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlin, 2005; Shiu & Lenhart, 2004; Harmon, 2003; Quan-Haase, Cothrel, & Wellman, 2005). Interaction in IM consists of interlocutors typing and reading messages via computer screens. It is potentially synchronous and generally occurs between two users in a one-to-one format, which distinguishes it from other forms of one-to-many CMC such as message boards, listservs, or chat rooms (Baron, in press). As CMC becomes more embedded in daily life as a typical mode of communication, an understanding of its unique properties becomes salient. What distinguishes it from other forms of communication and how it is used and perceived as a social instrument have engaged our research efforts, and at the heart of these questions is how users use and perceive language in CMC. We have only begun to address the nature of linguistic behavior in CMC, though its use is necessarily discursive. This study contributes to the burgeoning field of empirically-based literature on linguistic issues in CMC, and IM in particular, by applying the sociolinguistic concept of variation to IM as it relates to standard usage and gender. While there has been much sociolinguistic work on variation and gender, there has been little work on variation in written modalities, and even less on variation and CMC. We lack quantitative sociolinguistic investigation of Squires 2 linguistic variables and their social correlates from a variationist perspective. After providing a brief background on sociolinguistic variation, standards, gender, writing, speech, and CMC, I present findings of an empirical study of the use of apostrophes in IM conversations. I then argue for the usefulness of the concept of "standard" in analyzing CMC linguistic behavior.
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This paper examines linguistic variation on an Internet Relay Chat channel with respect to the hypothesis, based on the model of Milroy and Milroy (1992), that standard variants tend to be associated with weak social network ties, while vernacular variants are associated with strong network ties. An analysis of frequency of contact as a measure of tie strength reveals a structured relationship between tie strength and several linguistic variants. However, the variant features are associated with social positions in a way that does not correlate neatly with tie strength. An account of these results is proposed in terms of the social functions of the different variables and the larger social context of IRC affecting tie strength.