36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition

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Ellipsis

Repeated words can be left out in some contexts but not in others

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ELLIPSIS IN ENGLISH

Ellipsis is the grammatically acceptable removal of one or more words from a sentence because their meaning can be easily understood without them. Not all obvious words leave a grammatical sentence when dropped (see 158. Abbreviated Sentences) but very many do. The choice about dropping them is usually a free one; it is usually made in order to achieve a better style. It underlies the following joke:

(a) One friend asks another who is about to go shopping: “Would you mind getting something for me? I need a carton of milk; and if they have eggs, get 6.”

When the shopping comes back, there are 6 cartons of milk and no eggs. The one who requested the eggs asks: “Why did you buy 6 cartons of milk?” The other replies: “They had eggs”.

The underlined words are the example of ellipsis. The unmentioned word is eggs. The joke lies in the fact that the hearer understands a different previously-mentioned word, carton. The understood message is “If they have eggs, get 6 cartons of milk”, so 6 cartons of milk are purchased instead of 6 eggs. This interpretation is possible, but unlikely in the context. Common sense makes it highly probable that the omitted word is eggs.

Ellipsis can cause problems for English users in both reading and writing. The following sections offer a small number of examples. The main point I wish to make is the need to be aware of what ellipsis is and its importance for using English correctly. Readers seeking a full list of ellipsis rules in English are referred to grammatical descriptions of the normal kind.

Other parts of this blog that touch on ellipsis are 53. “As”, “Like” and “Such As”,  64. Double Conjunctions,  68. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong (1),  102. Adjectives with no Noun 2: Thing-Naming,  138. Test your Command of Grammar,  148. Infinitive Verbs without “to” and 158. Abbreviated Sentences.

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EXAMPLES OF READING PROBLEMS CAUSED BY ELLIPSIS

The following two extracts seemed to be difficult for learners of English who encountered them in a reading test. How easy is it to identify the ellipsis in each? 

(b) As firms become larger and the economy more monopolised, the competition that originally impelled firms to invest their profits in machinery weakens, and with it the incentive to continue this sort of investment. 

(c) By drawing a radical ontological distinction between body as extended and mind as pure thought, Descartes, in search of certitude, had paradoxically created intellectual chaos. 

In (b) there are two omitted verbs: becomes after the economy and weakens at the end. In (c) the omitted word is thought: Descartes distinguished between body as “extended thought” and mind as “pure thought”. The omitted words in (b) come after the words they repeat, but the one in (c) comes before (and is perhaps more difficult as a result).

An important observation about both of the examples is the presence of and (underlined) next to the omitted word(s). This word is a particularly common trigger of omission (see, for example, 148. Infinitive Verbs without “to”). However, other conjunctions, such as if in the eggs example, are quite common too.

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TWO WRITING RULES INVOLVING ELLIPSIS

In this section I wish to present one rule that is absent from most grammar books, and one that is especially problematic for many learners of English. Consider the ellipsis in this sentence: 

(d) This book deals with the early history and customs of the Celts.

The omitted words are the early before customs. In other words, this sentence says that two early characteristics of the Celts will be dealt with: early history and early customs. How does one know that the adjective early must be understood as describing customs as much as history? The clue is in the ellipsis of the before customs. It implies that the adjective too has been omitted. How could the sentence be written so as to prevent early from being understood with customs? The answer is by not omitting the, like this: 

(e) This section deals with the early history and the customs of the Celts. 

Now the promise is to cover all Celtic customs, not just early ones. There seems to be a general rule at work here: if there is an adjective before two nouns linked by and, and if the second noun’s article is left out to avoid repetition, the adjective describes both nouns. This means that sometimes the choice between using and not using ellipsis depends on meaning. 

My second grammar rule involving ellipsis relates to conjunctions in general. Consider the missing word here: 

(f) Water evaporates and … forms clouds. 

The repeated idea that has been left out is, of course, water (or it). Now consider what happens when a different conjunction is used: 

(g) As water evaporates, it forms clouds. 

The meaning here is similar, but the repeated idea cannot be left out. There is no logical reason for this requirement – many languages would allow it to be left out, while many others like English would not. The reason for the difference between sentences (f) and (g) lies in the fact that the conjunctions are of two different kinds. The conjunction and is technically called “co-ordinating”, while as is “subordinating (see 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition).

These conjunction types can be understood in terms of both meaning and grammar. In meaning terms, a co-ordinator gives the verb after it the same importance as the other verb in the sentence – there is no “main” verb; while a subordinator makes its verb less important. In grammar terms, a coordinator can only be placed between the two verbs that it links, while a subordinator can go either before or between them. The rule for ellipsis with these two conjunction types is that when two verbs have the same subject, coordinating conjunctions allow the second subject mention to be omitted but subordinating ones do not. 

The main coordinating conjunctions are and, but, so, or, nor and for (some linguists would include yet, then and i.e. too). Subordinators, which are more numerous, include as, as soon as, when, whenever, once, while, if, after, before, though, although, because, until, whereas, since, that, so that, provided that, in case and than. There looks to be a fairly heavy learning load here, but in fact there need be none at all: it is always possible not to use ellipsis after a conjunction, so if in doubt do just that. 

Curiously, subordinating conjunctions do allow ellipsis of a repeated subject if a form of the verb BE is also left out. Here are some examples: 

(h) Most snakes, unless attacked, will not bite.

(i) Walking, although slow, enables places to be appreciated.

(j) Once practised, grammar rules are easily remembered. 

The omitted words here are respectively they are, it is and they are. Note that both words each time must be omitted; neither can be omitted by itself. The word after the conjunction will usually be either an adjective, as in (i), or a verb in the “participle” form (i.e. with -ing or -ed – see 52. Participles Placed Just After their Noun).

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5 thoughts on “36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition

  1. I read this post and this is very helpful to me.You have mentioned in a place that the verbs that remain are always in the participle form. Sir,I have a confusion that “slow” in this sentence is participle or adjective. The sentence is: “Walking, although slow, enables places to be appreciated”.Please clarify if ” slow” is participle in this sentence.

    • Thanks for pointing this out: “slow” in (i) is an adjective, not a participle. I wrote incorrectly that ellipsis after a subordinating conjunction always leaves a participle, when in reality it can leave an adjective instead. I have changed the wording of the post, so hopefully it is now correct. Thanks again.

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