158. Abbreviated Sentences

It is useful to know the kinds of word that can be left out of a sentence to save time

THE NATURE AND IMPORTANCE OF ABBREVIATED SENTENCES

Abbreviation can be of both words and sentences. While abbreviated words lack some of their letters (see 130. Formal Abbreviations), abbreviated sentences lack some of their words, even ones that grammar would normally require. A well-known use of abbreviated sentences is in newspaper headlines. In the following example, three small words are missing:

(a) Queen to visit leading car manufacturer.

In most situations, the rules of English grammar would require this sentence to begin with a word like the, to include is or is going alongside to visit (because in full sentences a lone verb with to usually needs another verb with it – see 30. When to Write a Full Stop), and to add the or a before leading.

The reason for leaving out words that English grammar normally requires is to save space – newspaper headlines nearly always have to be brief. There are other places too where such abbreviation is common. Historically, telegrams – which cost a certain amount of money for every word in them – were one (I once sent my parents the message girl Emily born 22 June 01.30). In technical writing, wording on diagrams tends to be minimal. And of course notes taken in college lectures, which have to be written quickly so that none of the lecture is lost, are a source of abbreviated sentences that students are especially likely to be familiar with.

Speakers whose mother tongue is not English are likely to find abbreviated sentences problematic in both reading and writing. Readers need to recognise not just that a word is absent, but also what it is. Writers need to know which words can be left out and which cannot – to in (a) above, for example, is not normally omissible. It is on these two questions that the present post offers guidelines.

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WORDS COMMONLY OMITTED FROM ABBREVIATED SENTENCES

In general, any word can be omitted whose meaning can be understood without it. In most cases, dropping such words will leave an ungrammatical sentence. However, this will not be a problem in contexts where abbreviated language is expected. Omissible words can be divided into various types. They include the following.

1. Words that can be Omitted Grammatically

Some words can be absent but “understood” without breaking any grammar rule. Their omission is technically called “ellipsis”. The following example comes from the Guinlist post 68. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 1:

(b) One of these housed the chapel, another (housed) a library.

Dropping the second mention of housed here does not stop its meaning being recognised (except by computers), and breaks no grammar rule. For other examples of ellipsis, see 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition.

Note that obvious verb objects often do not fit into this category of grammatically omissible words – though they can still be dropped when abbreviation is the main concern (see #6 below). In the following sentence from the Guinlist post 8. Object-Dropping Errors, him is an object of this kind:

(c) However bad a man may be, his relatives will not completely reject him.

Another kind of word that can be omitted grammatically is more related to the grammar of sentences than their meaning. One of the most common is that (pronounced with /Ə/ rather than /æ/), which can be either a conjunction or a relative pronoun (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). Readers will be familiar with the possibility of leaving out this word when it either introduces indirect speech or represents the object of a so-called “defining” relative clause, as in this example from the Guinlist post 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas:

(d) Reforms (that) Napoleon introduced were long lasting.

Other words of this kind include in order before to, and as before the object complement of a few verbs like ELECT (see 92. Complement-Showing “As”). Also worth mentioning are preposition phrases that can be paraphrased by a shorter structure, such as an adverb (e.g. with ease/easily – see 85. Preposition Phrases and Corresponding Adverbs) or placement of their noun directly before another (see 136. Types of Description by Nouns).

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2. Articles

The and a(n) are routinely absent from abbreviated sentences. The can be dropped even from people-naming adjective expressions like the poor and from “proper” nouns that normally have it, such as The West Indies or The Eiffel Tower (see 6. Adjectives with no Noun 1 and 47. Article Errors with Proper Nouns).

A possible exception might be where the article influences the meaning of the noun, as in the people (= the non-governing citizens) versus people (= human beings), went to the prison (= visited) versus went to prison (= was imprisoned), and (from the post 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1) in the future (= predicting) versus in future (= warning).

Articles are also commonly absent from labels on diagrams. This can give a special problem when they are being referred to in an accompanying text (see 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”): in order to restore the articles correctly, the writer has to recognise which labels lack one and which do not.

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3. Possessive Adjectives

Words like my, our, your and her are alternatives to the before a noun (all belong to the wider class of so-called “determiners” – see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”). They are equally omissible:

(e) Hannibal walked (his) elephants across (the) Pyrenees.

It is obvious that the elephants here belong to Hannibal, even when his is dropped. Possessive adjectives should only be kept in abbreviated sentences when ownership is unclear.

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4. The Verb BE

It is normal to drop this verb regardless of whether it has its “auxiliary” or main-verb use (see 3. Multi-Use Words). In (a) above, it is a main verb helping to express an arrangement (see 119. BE before a “to” Verb). It is an absent auxiliary in the following:

(f) “Alien” airship (is) seen by thousands.

When BE is combined with a forward-looking it at the start of a sentence (see 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb), the it is normally dropped as well, like this:

(g) (It is) rare to find (an) adjective without (a) noun.

The same happens with what I call “presentational” there (see 161. Presenting Information with “There”), which also typically accompanies BE at the start of a sentence:

(h) (There are) numerous ways to learn a language.

The a is not dropped here before language because language and a language mean different things (see 23. Noun Countability Clues 3).

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5. Prepositions

If a preposition cannot be avoided by using a shorter alternative structure (see above), it might simply be omissible, like this:

(i) Ancient Egyptians wrote (on) papyrus.

Without on here, we would still probably understand that papyrus was where Ancient Egyptians wrote rather than what. In general, prepositions seem omissible if their meaning is obvious from the context. On many occasions, however, they will need to be kept. The preposition of is perhaps one of the most omissible (see 160. Uses of “of”).

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6. Personal Pronouns

These comprise I, you, he, she, it and the plurals we and they. Again, there is not 100% omissibility. It seems most likely when the pronoun is repeating an earlier mention of the same idea, in either the same or an earlier sentence, like this:

(j) When hydrogen nuclei (are) fused together, (they) form helium.

(k) Caesar conquered (the) Britons. Then (he) returned (to) Rome.

Note that the above pronouns could not be left out in ordinary writing – the verbs after them need a grammatical “subject”. Some other languages allow a repeating pronoun to be left out of sentences like (j), where there is a conjunction (when). However, English only allows this after a few conjunctions, excluding when. For details, see 36. Words Left Out to Avoid Repetition.

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PRACTICE EXERCISE: NOTE-FORM ENGLISH

To assist appreciation and memorization of the above points, readers are invited to put the following sentences into “note” form, using both sentence and word abbreviation. Suggested answers are given below.

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1. A microscope is an instrument that magnifies small objects.

2. There is a subject that communicates more by means of short symbols than through words: it is of course Mathematics.

3. If the price of a good increases, demand for it falls (except in the case of luxury items).

4. The ancient Athenians invented drama and it possessed great importance within their democratic system.

5. It is expected that vehicles able to function without a driver will not be able to go faster than the speed limit.

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Possible Answers

1. Microscope: instrum. magnifies small objects.

2. Subj. where symbols > words = maths.

3. Price increases ⇒ demand falls (except lux. items).

4. Ancient Athenians invented drama; v. important within their democracy. (Note the need for their)

5. Expected vehicles without driver can’t break speed limit.

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