Dot, dot, dot: The ambiguous ellipsis in the Trump Ukraine call summary

An ellipsis (plural, ellipses) has multiple meanings: it can indicate an unfinished thought, a pause, or, in quoted material, something that’s been omitted. When there’s ambiguity, it’s up to the author to resolve it. Trump’s Ukraine call summary doesn’t, and that’s a problem.

The ellipsis for an uncompleted thought is more common in fiction. In nonfiction writing, you’re better off avoiding it. So you’ll see:

With a devious look, she said, “I was just thinking . . .”

“Umm, could you take a look at . . . “

2020 is going to be a very good year for you . . . if you behave yourself. You’re better off with me than Pocahontas, have you figured that out yet?”

Here are a few examples of ellipses in my own writing:

If you’re a first-time author, you’ll soon be whining, “I can’t believe my publisher doesn’t . . .” , followed by some task that obviously every publisher ought to do, or you thought they would do, or they used to do.

You need perspective . . . but you’re not looking in the right place

But you might not be the kind of person who could be an author . . . unless you can do the rest of the steps.

In the first case, the use of “. . .” indicates there are many possible ways to finish the sentence, which is a legit use of the ellipsis. But the second and the third mark the common use of ellipses where a comma, semicolon, or dash could be a better choice. (I know, I’ve previously railed against em dashes as well, so I guess the lesson is: write actual complete sentences whenever possible.)

I think part of the problem with ellipses is that they’ve become common in the unhinged, fragmentary rambles of online ranters. You see stuff like this and wonder, did this person forget how language works? And then you might believe they’re just imitating the occasionally incoherent rambles of our rambler-in-chief:

I know more about the big bills. … Than any president that’s ever been in office. Whether it’s health care and taxes. Especially taxes. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have persuaded a hundred. … You ask Mark Meadows [inaudible]. … I couldn’t have persuaded a hundred congressmen to go along with the bill. The first bill, you know, that was ultimately, shockingly rejected … I know the details of taxes better than anybody.

Of course, an ellipsis has a completely ordinary and legitimate meaning: it indicates where irrelevant material has been removed from a quoted passage. Here’s an example from my blog, quoting Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker.

Renoir took such presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women—who in his paintings were always creamy or biscuit white, often with strawberry accents, and ideally blond—that, [art historian Martha] Lucy goes on to argue, the tactility of the later nudes, with brushstrokes like roving fingers, unsettles any kind of gaze, including the male. . . .

There’s no beholding distance from their monotonously compact, rounded breasts and thunderous thighs, smushed into depthless landscapes and interiors, and thus no imaginable approach to intimacy. 

The meaning of these is clear: Schjeldahl said some stuff that I didn’t think you’d need to read between the two passages.

What do the ellipses in the Ukraine call summary mean?

Donald Trump’s administration released a call summary/quasi-transcript of his call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Here are two passages. And I need to be clear: the ellipses shown here are in the original document.

Trump: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it.

The other thing, There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.

It’s hard enough to follow this stuff. But I have questions.

If these are conversational pauses, then it’s typical of Trump’s elliptical way of speaking, in which he connects thoughts in his head that don’t necessarily follow in the listener’s or reader’s mind. If so, these passages are exactly as damning as they appear on paper, and no worse. A lot of the threat and quid pro quo, to the extent it exists, comes from reading between the lines. There’s no explicit threat to withhold aid unless Zelensky has Biden’s son investigated.

But if these are omissions, you have to wonder what’s missing. In particular, I’d like to know what follows “if you can look into it . . . ” If you can look into it, I’ll be your friend? If you can look into it, I’ll release the money? If you can look into it, I’ll get Putin to back off? It makes a great deal of difference what’s in the gap where the ellipsis appears.

Not only is this not a complete transcript, there will never be a complete transcript. Presidents don’t record phone calls any more, since Nixon got in trouble with his tapes. And as it says, right on the call summary document:

CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place. A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation. 

We’ll soon learn what this conversation means for the future of our country and the presidency. But I can tell you what it means for you:

Don’t use an ellipsis if you can avoid it. It’s fine for omitted material in quotes, but any other use is subject to misinterpretation. Aim for the opposite of rambling: precision.

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