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Tacit Misunderstandings: Problems
of Ellipsis for Beginning and
Intermediate ESL Learners
by Ronald D. Klein

- 2

In addition to Quirk's various examples of non-grammatical discourse form and Celce-Murcia's examples of deletions, there are other grammatical forms that tacits can take, including conjecting modals, contrasting subjects, subjunctive & be-verbs and noun determiners. Taken together, these given examples of tacits comprise almost 50 different grammatical entities! The following list summarizes many of these forms referred to:

Varieties of Tacits

(from Quirk, et. al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1987)

1. Exclamations (wh-element):
How quickly you eat!
- What a mess we're in!

2. Echoes:
- A: The Browns are emigrating. B: Emigrating?
- A: I'm going to London for a holiday. B: To London?

3. Irregular wh-questions:
- How about your parents?
- Why listen to him?

4. Subordinate clauses:
- To think that he could be so mean! - That it should come to this!
- If only he were not so timid! - Now for a good bath!

5. Adverbials as directives:
- That way! - On with the show!
- On your feet! - Back to work!

6. Aphorisms:
- The sooner the better. - Waste not, want not.
- Here today, gone tomorrow. - Like father, like son.

7. Subject plus complements:
- Not bad, that salmon.
- Just our luck, Sue finding out.

8. Block language (labels, titles, notices):
- No entry - No dogs without leashes
- Fresh today - All the news that's fit to print

9. Headlines:
- Oil Spill Threat Decreasing - British Victory Surprises
- Woman Claims Drug Caused Cancer, Sues

10. Letters, cables, diaries:

- Having a wonderful time!
- Sorry about Jane!

11. Instructions:
- Cook to golden brown. - Refrigerate after opening.
- Keep away from heat. - Open other end.

12. Abbreviated sentences:
- Want another cup? - Anything wrong?
- Serves them right! - First lap over. Five more to come.

13. Elliptical dialogue:
- A: Who sent you? B: The manager.
- A: When will you leave? B: With luck, on Friday.

14. Nonsentences:
- Good idea! - You and your statistics!
- Hot or cold? - One step more and I'll shoot.

15. Formulae:
a. Greetings: - Evening! - Good morning to you!
b. Farewells: - All the best! - See you later!
c. Thanks: - Thanks a lot. - Appreciate it!
d. Reactions: - Yeah, OK. - No problem!
e. Toasts: - Here's to you! - Good health!
f. Alarms: - Fire! - Help!
g. Warnings: - Watch out! - Be careful!
h. Apologies: - Sorry!- My mistake!
i. Responses: - No matter. - Never mind.
j. Congratulations: - Well done! - Congratulations!
k. Introductions: - Joan, my sister. - John, a good friend of mine.
l. Anger/dismissal: - Get lost! - Bugger off!
m. Expletives: - Good lord! - Damn it!.
n. Miscellaneous: - Well, I'll be! - Nothing doing!

16. Ellipsis: grammatical or semantic omission, usually but not always recoverable:
a. nouns: - My camera, like Peter's, is Japanese.

b. adj. & noun heads: - Helen is the older girl, but Julie the taller.

c. modifiers: - Her second novel was different from her first.

d. medial: - A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
- That letter was the last I ever received from her.

e. finite clauses: - I'm happy if you are.
- His father was at Oxford when Harold Wilson was.

f. do-operators: - Rupert wanted to attend the bullfight, although his wife didn't.
- I don't like living in the country. Do you?

g. predicates: - Nigel finished the exam at the same time as George.
- Nigel finished the exam first, then George.

h. wh-clauses: - We're bound to win the prize someday. But when?
- Somebody has hidden my book, but I don't know who/why/where.

i. to-infinitives: - I won't disturb you again unless I have to.
- She borrowed my pen, although I told her not to.

j. entire clauses: - You can borrow my pen if you want.
- Somebody out to help. Shall I ask Peter?

k. nonfinite/verbless: - Although exhausted, he continued his journey.
- Whether right or wrong, the government always wins.

l. appended: o I caught the bus--just!
- The train arrived on time, for a change.
- It was nice of him to call, wasn't it?


(from Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, The Grammar Book: an ESL/EFL Teacher's Course, 1983)

17. Deletions:
a. auxiliary deleted: - You going to the movies?
- You know Fred Callaghan?

b. imperatives: - Leave the room!
- Don't be late!

c. auxiliary in wh-questions: - Where you been hiding?
- What you doing?

d. prepositions of time: - We have lived here 12 years.
- He went surfing Saturday.

e. parallel structure: - Mary ate an apple and Joe a banana.
- Mike is a lawyer and Ken a teacher.

f. reduction of relative clause: - The curry I cooked was too hot.
- The ice skater in the show looks familiar.

g. relative adverb: - The reason I voted "no" was my opposition to the project.
- I remember the time I tried to make a souffle.

h. indirect speech: - John said he would buy that car the following day.

18. Other:
a. head sentence: - He went back home after school, but reluctantly.
- You can fax it to my home today or to my office Monday.

b. subjunctive & be-verb: - He looked away as if embarrassed.
- He looked like before.

c. verbs compared/subject omitted: - He studied harder than planned.
- She succeeded more than expected.

d. subject raising, delete be-verb: - I found their prices reasonable.
- I didn't think it particularly exciting.

e. relative pronoun & be-verb: - There are topics not suitable for children.
- She has a daughter still living at home.

f. modality conjecting/verb deleted: - Why bother going all the way home?
- I wouldn't if I were you.

g. noun determiner: - There were some left behind.
- Have you seen any lately?

h. participial conjunction/with deleted & accompanying circumstance:
- She woke up in the morning, her pillow wet with tears.
- He left home in the morning, a newspaper under his arm.

i. contrasting objects: - Jim wondered if they would finish, but Sheila didn't.
- I depended on you more than Roger.

Many of these examples, especially the non-ellipsis examples from Quirk, are common part of English usage, but probably not taught in classroom texts. Examples such as the echo, nonsentences or elliptical dialogue rely on recovered antecedents. Others, like the truncations of adverbials as directives, headlines, letters, instructions and abbreviated sentences, follow normal omissions common in the native language, like Japanese, which has its own brand of missing syntax. Also, block language of labels or notices, instructions and most of the formulae carry meaning without the need for linguistic comprehension.

Looking at Quirk's ellipsis, most of these are recoverable, with the dropped word--nouns, verbs, adjectives--available within the sentence. Examples include:

#16b Helen is the older girl, but Julie (is) the taller (girl).
#16e I'm happy if you are (happy).
#16i I won't disturb you again unless I have to (disturb you).

Celce-Murcia's deletions tend to involve simple implied subjects, and the dropping of auxiliaries, prepositions or relative conjunctions:

#17b Don't (you) be late!
#17c What (are) you doing?
#17d We have lived here (for)12 years.
#17f The curry (that) I cooked was too hot.

On the other hand, analysis of just a few of the other examples will demonstrate the problems that Japanese students trained in word-by-word decoding may have in discerning the linguistic form of truncated sentences. Take for example the aphorism, Waste not, want not. Not only does it rely on an outdated structure of English, putting the negative after the verb, and an outdated use of the word want but the relationship between the seemingly parallel directives is ambiguous and unclear.

In example #18a:
He went back home after school, but reluctantly.
the final phrase, but reluctantly, without a subject or verb, stands too far away from the main verb, which it modifies, leading students to question its linguistic relationship to the rest of the sentence.

In #18f:
Why bother going all the way home?

the lack of noun gives the verb bother an ambiguous meaning, especially next the the gerund going, especially since the modal would, which gives the sentences its uncertainty, is also missing.

Finally, in #18h:

He left home in the morning, a newspaper under his arm.
the phrase a newspaper under his arm is a dangling modifier showing accompanying circumstance, but lacking the preposition with or the participial verbs having, holding or carrying to tie it to the sentence.

As these examples show, even if the student is advanced enough to be able to retrieve the meaning of dropped subjects, predicates and modifiers, there are many other examples where the retreivability is more difficult, where the omitted words lead a non-native learner into a linguistic dead end, causing difficulty in comprehending the meaning of the sentence.

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