Omission of informationA study of Ellipsis in English [Archives:2003/663/Education]

August 28 2003

By Hasan Moh'd
TA of English
English Language Dept.
Faculty of Education (HUST) – Seiyoun

This paper attempts to shed light on omission of redundant information in English through an ever-dominating process known as ellipsis. It pinpoints the reasons behind this process and the effect it has on conveying a message from an addresser to an addressee.
Ellipsis is a linguistic phenomenon that, to the best of my knowledge, exists in all languages. In ellipting some linguistic item(s) from a sentence, a speaker leaves out a part of an utterance for the listener to retrieve from the linguistic context, i.e., the elements surrounding the ellipted part. This can be illustrated by the following examples from English, the language under study in this paper.
People who find such repetitions unnecessary or boring apply ellipsis where possible to achieve a more appropriate economy of statement.Besides reducing length and complexity, ellipsis helps to connect one part of a sentence or text to another. Accordingly, this sort of reduction helps us to save energy and be economical. The maxim concerning ellipsis, is that 'reduce as much as possible' without loss of identity from the context. To put it differently, all other things, being equal, better make use of ellipsis.
It is part of the tendency of ellipsis that it should be absolutely noticeable what the deleted words are. If it is not crystal clear what has been omitted, we can not call a sentence elliptical. Taking a rapid look at
A: Have another biscuit.
B: Thanks.
We can notice the latter can not be called an elliptical sentence simply because it is not 'short' for a longer sentence for the simple reason that there are many potentials, and it is not possible to choose between them: For example, 'I give you thanks', 'my thanks are due to you', 'I owe you thanks for this biscuit', 'this person thanks you for the biscuit', and so on. We only omit elements reasonably interpretable from the preceding context. The following statement along with six possible responses pinpoint the idea:
This country must economize if it is going to increase its prosperity.
a) I agree
b) Absolutely
c) Certainly not
d) Nonsense
e) True enough, but the problem is how to economize
f) And the only way to do it is by greater taxation

All these responses in some way are incomplete sentences but are quite usual in communication.
In addition, not only words or phrases but also whole clauses are subject to deletion. Elliptical sentences are as answers to WH)questions beginning with wh-words such as 'who', 'when' in addition to yes/no questions. In answers to such questions, often a whole part of the question sentence (which would otherwise be repeated) is cleared up.
Q: When did the coach arrive?
A: Late last night.
(Ellipsis of the coach arrived)

Q: Where is my agenda?
A: On the shelf
(Ellipsis of your agenda is)

Q: What is happening?
A: Nothing/not much
(Ellipsis of 'is happening')

Q: What would like for breakfast?
A: A kipper
(Ellipsis of I would like for breakfast)

Q: Have you finished your work?
A: Not entirely

Q: Are there any scholarship for oversea students?
A: Not many

Despite this, not just any part of a sentence can be removed-. Ellipsis affects specific kinds of words in quite particular positions. In English, it is the major or lexical word classes, and the phrases around these, that are essentially prone to this phenomenon, particularly when modified by some more marginal word classes such as a demonstrative, numeral, auxiliary, or an intensifier (a word like 'very' or somewhat).
Let's now look critically at the following imaginary dialogue:

Q: Which peaches do you want? I want those. (Ellipsis of a noun, 'peaches', after a demonstrative)
Q: How many hotels do you want? I want three (Ellipsis of a noun, 'hotel', after a numeral)
Q: will you come and see me at home? Yes I will. (Ellipsis of a verb phrase, 'come and see', after an auxiliary)
Q: Hot, isn't it? Very. (Ellipsis of an adjective, 'hot', after and intensifier)
Ellipsis differs from contraction or shortening as can be seen in function words such as 'can't', 'won't', 'shan't', 'I'm'. Unlike such contraction, ellipsis involves disappearances of whole words or phrases. Linguists differ in their opinion about how to apply the term 'ellipsis', but most would predict elements depending on the context in a specific conversation or text for their 'filling in'. For example, the regularly understood, but absent, 'you' in imperative sentence; like keep calm/go ahead, wouldn't normally be called a case of ellipsis.
Similarly, the omission of articles and some other little words in newspaper headlines, faxes or e-mails as MOB ATTACKS POLICE AT STADIUM. Will not be strictly counted as cases of ellipsis, because it is the reader's knowledge of English grammar, rather than the specific context of the headline or e-mail that allows him or her to reconstruct what was intended.
Ellipsis is not the same as 'pro-forms' replacement of elements which would otherwise be repeated as in 'I sold my old car and brought a new one', where one is a pronoun substituted for car. With pro-forms, substitution, not omission, is involved.
There are basically two types of ellipsis, textual and situational. For the former, looking at the rest of the text, the full form of sentences can be pointed out.
Look at the following:

1) In short tag answers beginning with so, neither, nor.
-He didn't see Ann, and neither did I.
-I've visited Rome, and so has she.
-He wouldn't like to go to the meeting, and nor would I.

2) After an auxiliary or a modal, you can leave out the verb phrase. If there is no aux, use do/does/did.
– All my colleagues had chances, but I hadn't.
– He can't swim, but I can.

3) In short answers.
-How old are you? 25
-Have you seen the film? Already. OR not yet.

4) With the genitive.
– My car is faster than Ali's

5) In sentences where the verb should be repeated in the infinitive form.
– I never play tennis now, but I used to.

6) With parallel comparatives.
-The deeper the water, the greater the pressure.
For the latter, the choice of the missing elements would be evident from the people present.

-Beg your pardon. (I .)
-Serves you right. (It )
-See you later. (I will)
-Want a drink? (Do you )
-Pleased to meet you. (I am
-Any thing special? (Is there )
-Hungry? (Are you .)
-Hope so. (I .)
-Want to sell your mobile? (Do you )
-Doing anything tonight? (Are you )

Likewise, notice that words are omitted in public notices, headings, etc, and a noun phrase, a nominal clause or an adjective phrase stands on its own. Look at the following examples:

Public notice, prohibitions are often put in the form of a nominal phrase:

In some broadcasting situations, such as sports commentaries, a great deal of grammatical structure is omitted. This extract could be from a television football commentary:
Cruyff to Neskens; a brilliant Pass, that. And the score still: Holland 1, West Germany O.
In other circumstances, it is the situation outside language, which makes certain information negligible. Examples are the brief 'incomplete' or formulaic utterances one may hear in various situations:

Commands: Off with the lid! Out with it! Faster! Not so fast!
Questions: More coffee? How about joining us?
Slogans: Republicans out; Republicans for ever.
Exclamations: Marvellous! Superb! Goal! Good! Shame! (What a) pity! You lucky boy! Poor Muna!
Alarm Calls: Help! Fire!

To conclude, ellipsis is a fundamental feature which helps the speaker dispense with redundant linguistic items, thus avoiding being boring or over explicit. The more ellipsis one uses, the less energy and time one wastes and the more concise the massage becomes.

Crystal. D. (1990) Rediscover Grammar. London: Longman Group Limited
Leech. C. English Grammar for Today. London: Macmillan Education LTD
Leech. C. (1979) A communicative Grammar of English. London: Longman Group Limited