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

- 3

Testing Tacit Recognition

To test this hypothesis, I administered a short questionnaire, consisting of 14 of these examples, to a class of freshman university English majors at the end of their first year. As English majors they had just completed a year of taking eight classes in reading, writing, listening, speaking and TOEIC preparation. They are not beginners, yet their ability was not advanced, so perhaps they could be considered active intermediate learners, having contact with English several hours every school day.

At the same time, it was important to see if tacits somehow become understood with increased exposure to the language. To measure this, I gave the same questionnaire to a group of advanced practitioners of English, translators working for Mazda Motor Company. My expectation was that the advanced learners would tacitly understand the deletions. They would know where words had been dropped and would be able to supply the missing words.

Below is the list of sentences given. The instructions stated:

Each sentence has a word or words missing. Please add words to make the meaning clearer. It then gave three examples, showing where words had been added to give the sentence a clearer meaning.

Tacit Recognition Questionnaire

1. How kind of you!

2. On your feet!

3. Join us for lunch?

4. A boy was standing on the left side, a girl on the right.

3. If she tried, she could speak English well, but she didn't.

5. She returned to England because she had to.

6. You can fax it to my home today or to my office Monday.

7. He looked away as if embarrassed.

9. She succeeded more than expected.

10. I found their prices reasonable.

11. She has a daughter still living at home.

12. I wouldn't if I were you.

13. Have you seen any lately?

14. He left home in the morning, a newspaper under his arm.

The following chart shows the results of the responses:

Tacit Understandings--English Majors
Correct Response (ave.25.8%) Correct Marker, Wrong Response (ave. 20.0%)
1 0 0.0% 12 22.6%
How kind of you (to come today/to say so). How kind of you (are).
2 15 28.3% 9 16.9%
(Get) on your feet!
(It is) on your feet.
(Please/That/Watch/Take care of) on your feet!
3 10 18.8% 16 30.1%
(Can you/Would you/Will you) join us for lunch? (Shall we/Are you) join us for lunch?
4 23 43.3% 4 7.5%
A boy was standing on the left side,
a girl (was standing) on the right.
---
5 11 20.7% 20 37.7%
If she tried, she could speak English well, but she didn't (try). If she tried, she could speak English well, but she didn't (speak English/it/do)
6 22 41.5% 17 32.0%
She returned to England because she had to (return). She returned to England because she had to (do/it/returned to England)
7 15 28.3% 6 5.6%
You can fax it to my home today or (you can fax it) to my office Monday. Yuo can fax it to my home today or (it) to my office Monday.
8 17 32.0% 13 24.5%
He looked away as if (he was/were) embarrassed. He looked away as if (he) embarrassed.
9 28 52.8% 1 1.8%
She succeeded more than (I/she/we had) expected. ---
10 14 26.4% 5 9.4%
I found their prices (were) reasonable. I found their prices (of/with/which is/more/in) reasonable.
11 11 20.7% 15 28.3%
She has a daughter (who is) still living at home. She has a daughter (who/it was/and she/the daughter) still living at home.
12 8 15.0% 21 39.6%
I wouldn't (do it) if I were you. I wouldn't (do/you/this/that/such things/think about) if I were you.
13 7 13.2% 2 3.7%
Have you seen ay (movies/thing) lately? Have you seen any (that/new) lately?
14 11 20.7% 11 20.7%
He left home in the morning, (carrying/holding with) an umbrella under his arm. He left home in the morning, (and/then/it was/so) an umbrella under his arm.

 

End of First Year (T=53)
  Wrong Marker,
Wrong Response (ave. 27.5%)
No
Answer (ave. 26.2%)
28 52.8% 13 24.5%
How (are/is) kind of you (are) ---
12 22.6% 18 33.9%
On your (the) feet(s) (are). ---
16 30.1% 11 20.7%
Join (to) us for (the) lunch). ---
21 39.6% 5 9.4%
A boy was standing on the left side, (and) a girl on the right (side). ---
17 32.0% 6 11.3%
If she (wasn't/didn't/is/have/had) tries (speak English), she could speak English well, but she didn't. ---
3 5.6% 11 20.7%
She (has) returned to England because she had to. ---
20 37.7% 12 22.6%
You can fax it to my home today or to my office (on/by) Monday (it). ---
9 16-9% 14 26.4%
He looked (like) away (from) as if embarrassed (me). ---
11 20.7% 13 24.5%
She (was/is more) suceeded (to) more than expected (me). ---
17

32.0%

17 32.0%
I found (that) their prices reasonable. ---
10 18.8% 17

32.0%

She has a (her) daughter still (her daughter is) living at (the) home. ---
8 15.0% 16 30.1%
I wouldn't if I were you (wouldn't). ---
18 33.9% 26 49.0%
Have you (ever) seen (that/him/her/to) any (at) leately (movies)? ---
15 28.3% 16 30.1%
(When) He left home in the morning, an umbrella (was/is) under (the) his arm. ---


Discussion of Results

The results were tabulated into four categories. The first category showed correct answers marked in the correct place within the sentence. The second noted incorrect answers marked in the correct place. These mistakes showed that although respondents knew where something was missing, they did not have enough knowledge to know what grammatical form should be added. This resulted in some very strange grammar patterns. The third category marked wrong answers placed in wrong locations. And the fourth category were no answers, where respondents did not add anything to the sentences.

The average percentages of total responses of the four categories were remarkably evenly distributed:

Correct Response 25.8%
Correct Marker/Wrong Response 20.0%
Wrong Marker/Wrong Response 27.5%
No Answer 26.2%

However, the symmetry of responses cannot hide the fact that an average of only one quarter of the respondents could identify the missing words and put them in the right place. Of course within each category there was some variety of responses, which may bear some analysis.
For example in the category of correct responses, #1 had none, the only case in all the examples and all the categories. The sentence:

How kind of you!

is almost formulaic in English, but none of the respondents could finish it with an appropriate infinitive; for example, How kind of you to drop in like this.

At the other extreme, #6:
She returned to England because she had to.

had 41.5% correct responses and #9:
She succeeded more than expected.

had the high of 52.8%. One possible reason for a high number of correct responses in these examples may be the students' familiarity with these base sentences. In #6, they may have learned that the final unfinished infinitive refers back to the antecedent verb; in #9 they may have learned the comparative structure more than s/o V.

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