Learning Grammar through Reading: What Harry Potter Can Teach Us about English Grammar Rules (Week 5)

Introduction

We’ve made it to the fifth book of the Harry Potter series and the fifth week of our lessons learning grammar through reading. This is where things get intense. So intense, in fact, that we don’t . . . know . . . if we’ll be able . . . to go on . . .

Okay, okay, so we can go on. So far, we’ve looked at homophones and evil Defense Against the Dark Arts professors, commas and basilisk fangs, interrogative sentences and boggarts, and subject–verb agreement and gillyweed. Now it’s time to study ellipses. (I know it’s not as exciting as learning the stupefying charm or Petrificus Totalus, but, alas, it is important.)

If you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix just yet, I advise you to do so before you continue reading this post. Unless, of course, you’re a fan of spoilers, in which case, please do read on.

Ellipses and the Order of the Phoenix

Phineas Nigellus Black's portrait.In non-fiction, ellipses (. . .) serve specific functions. They can either be used to show that something has been omitted from a quotation, or they can be used to show that the writer has taken a pause. The former use is much more common in academic writing of any kind. There are different ways to format ellipses. These vary depending on the style guide being used. Some style guides require a space between each period in an ellipsis, while others require no spaces at all. (In case you’re confused, ellipses is the plural form of ellipsis.)

What purpose does the ellipsis serve in fiction writing? This type of punctuation is usually found within character dialogue. It usually indicates a pause. Basically, it helps the reader imagine exactly how characters are saying their lines of dialogue. Let’s look at a few examples from Phineas Nigellus, Nymphadora Tonks, and Ron Weasley.

“You know, Minister, I disagree with Dumbledore on many counts . . . but you cannot deny he’s got style . . .

Phineas Nigellus—or, rather, his portrait in the Headmaster’s office—is commenting on Dumbledore’s impressive disappearance. Nigellus is not Dumbledore’s biggest fan, so he’s somewhat reluctant to compliment Dumbledore’s “style.” Ellipses are used in this quotation to show that Nigellus is reluctant to make this statement; it is as if he is trying to stop himself from saying it. If you were a disgruntled former Slytherin Headmaster, you might find yourself relying heavily on hesitant punctuation as well.

Nymphadora TonksHer eyes widened as they fell on the broomstick in Harry’s right hand. It was his pride and joy, a gift from Sirius, an international-standard broomstick.

“And I’m still riding a Comet Two Sixty,” said Tonks enviously. Ah well . . . wand still in your jeans? Both buttocks still on? OK, let’s go.

Tonks is jealous of Harry’s broomstick. An ellipsis is used here to show that Tonks is changing the topic, as there is no point in her brooding in envy over Harry’s Firebolt when they are about to embark on a very dangerous journey. On a more serious note, all wizards- and witches-in-training should heed Mad Eye Moody’s previous warning about keeping wands in their back pockets. After all, “Better wizards than you have lost buttocks, you know!”

“I’ll make Goyle do lines, it’ll kill him, he hates writing,” said Ron happily. He lowered his voice to Goyle’s low grunt and, screwing up his face in a look of pained concentration, mimed writing in midair. “I . . . must . . . not . . . look . . . like . . . a . . . baboon’s . . . backside.

The ellipses used in this quotation give the reader information about the way Ron is saying his line. He is adding long pauses between each word because he is imitating Goyle. He is poking fun at the length of time it would take Goyle to write lines. This surely isn’t Ron’s most mature behavior, but what else could Dumbledore have expected when he made Ron a prefect?

Conclusion

Sometimes in life, you just . . . don’t quite know . . . what to say. Even wizards and witches have to take a bit of a pause sometimes, and that’s where ellipses come into play. If you have something to tell me about this post or any of the others so far, or if you’d just like to chat about Harry Potter, drop Scribendi a line on Facebook or Twitter.

Don’t forget to check out next week’s post, which is going to take a look at exclamatory sentences in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. How exciting!

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