Mind the gap: Ellipsis in
Dr. Veronica Bonsignori
A/A 2006-2007
University of Pisa
Some preliminary considerations 1
• Language is very gappy. We find gaps both
in spoken and written texts.
Especially in face-to-face conversation, we
often do not bother to encode information
that can be understood from the linguistic
or situational context.
A: Where’s my book?
B: [E] On the sofa.
Some preliminary considerations 2
• Ellipsis as a typical linguistic feature of spoken
rather than written language
 Prototypical ‘spoken text’
 Prototypical ‘written text’
Face-to-face conversation
Academic prose
The distinction between spoken and written
texts is not a matter of MODE.
Personal letter
a written genre with relatively oral
situational features
Academic lecture
a spoken genre with relatively literate
situational features
Define ellipsis
Classification of the various syntactic types
What is ellipsis? 1
• It entails syntactic reduction, a form of
inexplicitness consisting in the unspoken, the
unexpressed, but understood.
• It entails the omission or deletion of some
items of the surface text, which are
recoverable in terms of relation with the text
• Within the frame of Text Linguistics, ellipsis is
considered a major cohesive device,
contributing to the efficiency and
compactness of a text (Beaugrande-Dressler,
1981; Halliday-Hasan, 1976)
What is ellipsis? 2
• Halliday defines ellipsis in relation to
another important cohesive device, i.e.
substitution, since they embody the same
fundamental relation between parts of the
Ellipsis is ‘substitution by zero’
The relation between these two linguistic phenomena
is so tight that a relevant problem is trying to trace
a border between them: ‘The question whether a
given example is truly elliptical or not must be
decided empirically’ (B-D, 1981)
Ellipsis vs. Substitution
• Ellipsis
• Substitution
An elliptical item is one
which leaves specific
structural slots to be
filled from elsewhere
An explicit counter is
used as a placemarker for what is
presupposed (use of
pro-forms as one, do,
A: What is the capital of
B: London [E].
A: Mark has a crush on
B: Do you really think
• On the basis of the Economy Principle (‘Be
quick and easy’), the use of ellipsis reduces
the amount of time and effort in both encoding
and decoding, avoiding redundancy and
repetition, BUT only when it does not lead to
• Constraint of RECOVERABILITY:
The ellipted parts of the sentence must be
unambiguously specifiable.
• Communication is verbal and non-verbal,
so utterances have both linguistic and nonlinguistic properties
• Ellipted items are recoverable from:
1) the linguistic context
2) the situational context
1) Linguistic Context
• The actual language surrounding an
utterance or sentence
• It is endophoric referring to elements
within the text
• It can be anaphoric:
Brian won’t do the dishes, so I’ll have to [E].
• Or cataphoric:
Since Brian won’t [E], I’ll do the dishes.
2) Situational Context
• The variety of extra-linguistic factors that
may contribute to our understanding of a
language event:
Participants (role and relation)
Shared knowledge
Paralanguage (gestures, facial expressions, eyecontact)
The more explicit context of situation
Situational Ellipsis
• The recovery of omitted items is based on nonverbal context and cognitive process
• It is exophoric
the elements of reference
being outside the text
This type of ellipsis is not exclusive of
oral communication, in fact it is very
common in writing, too
Some examples…
• Face-to-face conversation:
 [E] Want some coffee?
 ‘Hey,’ Stradlater said. ‘[E] Wanna do me a big favour?’ (The
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
• Written texts:
 Push [E]. (sign on a door)
 Do not spray [E] on a naked flame. (on a spray can of air
Situational ellipsis is a very specific way in
which language interacts with its
To sum up…
• A: I think I’ll go and see the Coldplay.
B: I would [E], if I were you.
• A: Don’t [E]!
Syntactic types of ellipsis
• Classification of the different types of
ellipsis on the basis of the syntactic items
that are omitted
• Examples for each type mainly referring to
‘spoken texts’, with some exceptions…
Movie scripts
Transcriptions of spontaneous conversations
1. Ellipsis of the Subject
• It entails the omission of the pronoun or noun
functioning as Subject within the Nominal
• Generally, English does not allow this kind of
omission, since the Subject is obligatory in
English syntax. BUT, due to its stable role and
the fact that it generally conveys given and
redundant information, it is possible to omit it,
especially in face-to-face conversation
Only when it does not lead to ambiguity!!
Some examples from ‘spoken texts’…
• Transcript (London Lund Corpus):
 A: Well, I’m sorry for the other day
C: Yes. Well, what what was so awful? I know, I spoke to Liz and
she said that you you weren’t even doing anything else. You
were just in
A: No, [E] completely forgot about it
C: It was… I must have been unlucky in the time I phoned, you
just seemed to be out
B: mmm…
A: No, we were just out at the pub
C: [E] Got this enormous lump of meat, and I only finished it
The interpretation of elliptical utterances is
possible relying both on the linguistic and
situational context, and it is more accessible
to inside participants than to outside users,
because of physical proximity, eye-contact, i.e.
direct interaction (Merlini, 2003)
• Post-cards, personal letters, e-mail:
 [E] Wish you were here!
• Fiction: Movie scripts (The Dead Poets’ Society)
 Neil: I say we go tonight. Everybody in?
Cameron: [E] Sounds boring to me.
• Fiction: Novel (The Great Gatsby)
 ‘Neither of them can’t stand the person they’re married to’.
‘Can’t they?’
‘[E] Can’t stand them’.
The language used in these texts reproduces the typical
informal and familiar style of speech. In the case of
fiction, the aim is obviously to render the dialogues
more realistic.
• The use of the ellipsis of the subject depends
also on register and style, and is associated to a
specialized register – i.e. DIARY
 Bridget Jones’s Diary (H. Fielding)
Tues 3 Jan, 9 a.m. Ugh. [E] Cannot face thought of going to
work. Only thing which makes it tolerable is thought of
seeing Daniel again, but even that is inadvisable since [E]
am fat, [E] have spot on chin, and [E] desire only to sit on
cushion eating chocolate and watching Xmas specials.
 The Diary of Virginia Woolf
Can I describe Old Cot. Yesterday. L. looked at the telephone,
thinking he was mad. [E] Had been ill. More solitude
mania, I think. [E] Calmed down. [E] Gave us tea on hard
chairs in basement.
2. Nominal Ellipsis
• It entails the omission of elements within the
nominal group.
• It varies according to the logical function of the
modifier that is the Head in the elliptical group
• Deictics
 Novel (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
I felt this hand on the back of my neck, and it was Jane’s [E].
• Epithets
 Novel (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
I could see my mother going in Spaulding’s and asking the
salesman a million dopey questions – and here I was getting
the ax again. It made me feel pretty sad. She bought me the
wrong kind of skates – I wanted racing skates and she
bought hockey [E].
• Numeratives
numerals and other quantifying
 Novel (For whom the bell tools, E. Hemingway)
‘How many men are there?’ He pointed at the mill.
‘Perhaps four [E] and a corporal.
‘And below?’
‘More [E]. I’ll find out’.
‘And at the bridge?’
‘Always two [E]. One [E] at each end’.
 Movie Script (Notting Hill)
Martin: Shall I go get a cappuccino? Ease the pain.
Will: Yes, better get me a half [E]. All I can afford.
3. Verbal Ellipsis
• It entails cases of omission within the Verbal group
• It can be of two types:
Lexical Ellipsis
Operator Ellipsis
It involves the omission of
the lexical verb, so that the
verbal group consists only of
the operator – expressing
modality (can, will, would,
may, might) or tense (be,
have, do)
It involves the omission of
the operator, so that the
lexical verb is always
Generally, the Subject is
also omitted from the
A) Lexical Ellipsis: Examples
• Novel (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
 ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘is it ok if I sleep in Ely’s bed tonight? He won’t
be back till tomorrow night, will he [E]?’ I knew I damn well
he wouldn’t [E]. Ely went home damn near every weekend. ‘I
don’t know when the hell he’s coming back,’ Ackley said.
Boy, did that annoy me. ‘What the hell do you mean you
don’t know when he’s coming back? He never comes back
till Sunday night, does he [E]?’ ‘No, but for Chrissake, I can’t
just tell somebody they can sleep in his goddam bed if they
want to [E].’
• TV series script (Friends)
Monica: Well… honestly ever since we got engaged, I have
been waiting for something to… to flip you out.
Chandler: Honestly? Me too.
Monica: Really?
Chandler: Yeah. Y’know, I keep thinking that something stupid is
gonna come up and I’ll go all… Chandler. But nothing has
B) Operator Ellipsis: Examples
• Novel (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
 ‘How’s your brother?’ ‘He’s fine. He’s in Hollywood.’ ‘In
Hollywood! How marvellous! What’s he doing?’ ‘I don’t
know. [E] Writing.’
 ‘What’re ya gonna do – [E] sleep in Ely’s bed?’ Ackley said.
He was the perfect host, boy.
• Transcript (London Lund Corpus)
 B: will you have a drink?
C: oh that’s all right then – it’s just as well – (laughs) yes,
[E] love one.
• Newspaper headline (The Times)
 Migrants [E] found dead on trailer.
4. Ellipsis of Subj. + Lexical Verb
• It entails the omission of the Subject and Lexical
• It generally relates to BE as a copular verb.
• Movie Script (Notting Hill)
 Max: Well, I don’t know. Look at William. [E] Very
unsuccessful professionally. [E] Divorced. [E] Used to be
handsome, now [E] kind of squidgy around the edges – and
[E] absolutely certain not to hear from Anna again after she’s
heard that his name at school was Floppy.
• Notice (on a container of curry powder)
 [E] Suitable for the preparation of aromatic dishes.
• TV series script (E.R.)
 Lucy: Do you remember her?
Carter: [E] Not a clue. It’s a nice card though.
5. Clausal Ellipsis
• It entails the omission of other elements of
the clause belonging to the verbal group.
• It is frequent in question-and-answer
sequences and other rejoinder sequences,
i.e. where more than one speaker is involved.
• This type of ellipsis allows to convey only the
focus component of the response.
Some examples…
• Novel (The great Gatsby, F.S. Fitzgerald)
 ‘She’s a nice girl,’ said Tom after a moment. ‘They oughtn’t to
let her run around the country this way.’ ‘Who oughtn’t
to?’ inquired Daisy coldly. ‘Her family [E].’
• Movie script (The Dead Poets’ Society)
 Nolan: Your family moved into that new house, Mr.
Knox: Yes [E], sir. [E] About one month ago.
• Movie script (Notting Hill)
 William: Would you like a cup of tea before you go?
Anna: No [E], thanks.
William: [E] Coffee?
Anna: [E] No.
• TV series script (E.R.)
 Lucy: [E] Pacer pads?
Carter: [E] Third drawer on the left.
6. Ellipsis of Predicate Nominal
• It entails the omission of the Subject Complement in
a clause, so it always occurs when BE is present and
functions as copula.
• Novel (The great Gatsby, F.S. Fitzgerald)
 ‘This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am [E], and you are [E], and
you are [E].’
• Novel (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)
 I’d double-dated with that bastard a couple of times, and I know
what I’m talking about. He was unscrupulous. He really was [E].
• Transcript (London Lund corpus)
 A: Hello
C: Hello – sorry I’m late
A: That’s all right – are you [E]?
C: Yes I said half past seven
7. Ellipsis of the Object
• It entails the omission of the Object in the clause
• This type of ellipsis contributes to the
identification of a specific text-type that belongs to
the register of instructional writing – i.e. the
• Aunt Dot’s Brunswick Stew
 Bring water to boil in a saucepan; add potatoes and boil [E]
until tender (about 15 minutes).
 Pour the potatoes and the water used to boil them into a
large pot. Stir [E] in onion, peas, corn, tomatoes, ground
turkey and bacon. Bring [E] to boil. Cover [E], reduce heat to
medium-low, and simmer [E] for 2 hours, stirring [E]
Other types of instructional writing
• Notices, signs, instructions on containers of
household products and manufacturers’ labels on
• Sign on a door
 Push [E]
• Notice on a container of curry powder
 Store [E] out of direct sunlight.
• Instructions on a bottle of lavatory cleaner
 Spray [E] onto surface. Leave [E] for a few seconds. Wipe [E]
away with a damp sponge.
• Ellipsis is a linguistic phenomenon which
mainly characterises spoken language and
• Ellipsis is very complex (7 syntactic types)
• So…
When you analyse a text, mind the gap!
Thank you!

Mind the gap: Ellipsis in English