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Concourse 2

Ellipsis and substitution

omit replace

The first question to answer is why we should ellipt (leave out) or substitute parts of the language at all.
There are two reasons:

  1. Style:
    There are many occasions in both speaking and writing when repeating ourselves is considered poor form, poor style or quite odd.  For example, an utterance such as:
        I expected the weather to be bad and stop us playing and the weather was bad and the weather stopped us playing
    would sound strange whenever it was said or written.
    It can be amended to the better-sounding:
        I expected the weather to be bad and stop us playing and it was and did
    with it substituting for the weather, was substituting for was bad and did substituting for stopped us playing.
  2. Focus:
    Omitting or substituting shared items (i.e., information which the hearer / reader already has) allows the speaker / writer to focus on new data.
    For example, we could have an exchange that went something like:
        A: Have you done the washing up?
        B: No, I haven't done the washing up yet

    in which all the data are there in both utterances and that obscures the second speaker's meaning because the first speaker has mentally to dismiss the redundant information to extract the core communication.  A better and more natural exchange would be:
        A: Have you done the washing up?
        B: Not yet

    in which only the new information is relayed and the focus is clear.
    Of course, speaker B could have responded with:
        B: No
    but that would run counter to the cooperative principle which controls how communication happens.  In particular, in Grice's words:

    Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.
    (Grice 1989: 26)

    The simple 'No' answer provides only half the information the questioner demands.  We have the negative but not the implied commitment to do the washing up later which is encoded in the adverb yet.
    In this case, yet, stands for the sense of the present perfect tense form and is a case of substitution, not just ellipsis.
    There are more examples of this kind of ellipsis in the section below on spoken ellipsis and substitution.
write Task
On a piece of paper, abbreviate the following by replacing parts of sentences (substitution) or by leaving them out (ellipsis).
Click on the table when you've done it.

ellipsis and substitution 1


A closer look

OK.  Let's see what's happening.

  1. The sentence:
        I bought a shirt online but when the shirt arrived I didn't like the shirt
    changed to
        I bought a shirt online but when it arrived I didn't like it
    The noun shirt (with its article) has been replaced twice by it.  Pronoun substitution is just about the most common form of substitution.  The third-person pronouns are often used to refer to things in the text, e.g.:
        I don't really need reading glasses but they help
    and first- second- and third-person pronouns may be used to refer to people and things outside the text (exophoric referencing), e.g.:
        I liked the shirt but you didn't like it
        Maggie, Jim and I set out on time but they were delayed
  2. The exchange:
        Do you have any dark green floor tiles?
        No we don't have any dark green floor tiles but we have some dark blue floor tiles

    changed to
        Do you have any dark green floor tiles?
        No, we don't, but we have some dark blue ones

    In this example, two things are happening:
    1. The noun phrase (dark green floor tiles) has been replaced with ones, another common device.  This is a pronoun of sorts (the term pro-form would be better) and it can exist in both singular and plural guises (one/ones).
    2. The whole clause have any dark green floor tiles has been simply ellipted (left out), leaving only the auxiliary verb and the negative particle.  The verb have is clearly understood by both speakers.  The operator (do, in this case, with the negator) is left to stand for the whole verb phrase and the object.
  3. The exchange:
        Has the post come?
        No, the post hasn't come

    changed to
        Has the post come?
        No it hasn't

    Again, two things are happening:
    1. The noun phrase (the post) has been replaced with it, as in 1.
    2. The lexical or main verb come has been ellipted, leaving only the auxiliary verb and the negator (No, it hasn't).  Clearly, the verb come is understood.  Primary auxiliary verbs often remain to stand for entire verb phrases.
  4. The sentence:
        She loves gardening and Tom loves gardening
    changed to
        She loves gardening and so does Tom
    Here we have an example of so + the primary auxiliary standing for the lexical or main verb.  In these cases the auxiliary is called the operator.  It is a common device within and across sentences so we can also have, e.g.:
        I love gardening
        So do I!
    You may have changed this differently, having, perhaps:
        She and Tom love gardening
    which ellipts the verb and its object from the first half.
    or even
        She loves gardening and Tom, too
    ellipting the whole verb phrase and its object
    In this case even with the insertion of the adverb too, some ambiguity is present because we may understand that she loves both gardening and Tom.
  5. The sentence:
        The doctor advised me to take more exercise and I will take more exercise
    changed to
        The doctor advised me to take more exercise and I will (do) (so)
    Here again the operator auxiliary stands for the whole clause will take more exercise.  It can be do or its variant do so.
    In this case, because we also have the future marker will we can also reduce it to
        The doctor advised me to take more exercise and I will
    where the auxiliary is left to stand for the whole verb phrase and its object.
  6. The sentence:
        I didn't think he would arrive but he arrived
    changed to
        I didn't think he would arrive but he did
    Here the word did (the operator) stands for the verb arrived.  It's a straight substitution that is used with lexical or main verbs in simple past and simple present tenses (only).  For example:
        She promised to come early and did
        He thought it would rain but it didn't

        She thinks she understands but doesn't
    In tenses in the progressive and perfect aspects we can remove the main lexical verb and leave the primary auxiliary to substitute, e.g.:
        He has promised to pay me and he has
    but if we do that with simple tenses, there's nothing left.  We can't have
        *I didn't think he would arrive but he
    so English inserts the operator (did) to stand as the verb or verb phrase.  It can stand for a very long clause as in:
        I was surprised that the government decided to pass a law making it illegal to study grammar in school or even the privacy of your own home but it did.
  7. The sentence:
        She has cleaned and she has polished the car
    changed to
        She has cleaned and polished the car
    Both the subject, she, and the auxiliary verb, has, have been ellipted because they are common to both verbs.  The object of both verbs is the car.  Subject ellipsis is only allowed with some coordinating conjunctions; and, in this case.  There is more on the this restriction below.
    At other times, various parts of the sentence can be ellipted, for example:
        They have painted the house and the garage
    ellipting the subject, the auxiliary verb and the main verb
        I have washed the car and painted the door
    ellipting only the subject and the auxiliary verb because the object of each verb is different
        She has cleaned and repaired the door
    ellipting the object common to both verbs and the auxiliary.
  8. The exchange:
        A: Where is she?
        B: She is in the garden

    changed to
        A: Where is she?
        B: In the garden

    Again, shared information has allowed the ellipsis of the verb and its subject, leaving only the prepositional phrase.

cut out


Ellipsis has been described as substitution by zero.
Technically, ellipsis only occurs when the item that is omitted is 'uniquely recoverable'.  That is to say, there is no doubt about what has been omitted.  In, say,
    She often drinks sherry and probably will this evening
only drink sherry is the possible ellipsis.
However, in something like
    I liked the design so I bought some
there are a number of possibilities (of them, cars, shirts, shorts, glasses etc.) so this is not a case of ellipsis in the technical sense.  It is an example of substitution rather than ellipsis with the quantifier (some) standing for the object.
For teaching purposes, that really doesn't matter.

In some analyses, no distinction is made between the word classes of pronouns and determiners and both are subsumed into the class of determiner-pronoun.  By that analysis, the use of an item as a pronoun is assumed to be the use as a determiner with an ellipted noun phrase or clause.
We do not follow that analysis on this site because, for teaching purposes, it seems conceptually clearer to distinguish between the word classes.

There are more examples of ellipsis in what follows.


Possibilities and restrictions

We can ellipt a range of different parts of sentences and clauses but the ellipsis is often subject to some restrictions.
In the examples which follow, the symbol Ø represents the ellipted item(s) when it is acceptable only.

  1. Ellipting the verb
    For example, we can have:
        She is coming providing you are coming
    but, in the interests of focus on new information, the verb (because it is the same in both clauses) would normally be left out and we would get:
        She is coming providing you are Ø
    We cannot, however, ellipt the whole verb phrase so:
        *She is coming providing you
    is not acceptable because too much information has been removed for clarity to be achieved.
    What is happening here is that we are ellipting the whole of the predicate, leaving only the auxiliary verb (whether modal or primary).  For example:
        Mary will teach the class some new words in the first lesson and in the second, John can Ø
    which ellipts the whole of the predicate after can (teach the class some new words).
  2. Ellipting an adjective complement
    For example, we can have:
        They are satisfied if we are satisfied
    but, normally, the subject complement (the adjective) would be ellipted because it is redundant information, so we get:
        They are satisfied if we are Ø
    Again, we cannot ellipt the whole verb phrase so:
        *They are satisfied if we
    is not allowed.
    Copular verbs
    In the example above, we have the verb be acting as a copular verb linking the subject (they) with the adjective complement (satisfied).  We saw that the complement can be left out but not the verb.
    Ellipsis of the subject complement cannot, however, occur with alternative pseudo-copular verbs so, for example, we cannot reduce:
        She became a doctor and John became a doctor
        *She became a doctor and John became
        They got tired and we got tired
        *They got tired and we got
  3. Ellipting the prepositional verb or the prepositional complement (or object)
    When a prepositional verb applies to both objects, the preposition and its verb need not be repeated so we can have, for example:
        She objected to the price and Ø the quality
        They complained about the food and Ø the service
    However, if the preposition varies depending on meaning, it has to be inserted so we allow:
        They talked through the problem and Ø about the solutions
    in which both prepositions but not the verb itself are included.
    The prepositional complement (or object) can also be ellipted so we may have:
        He walked to and Ø over the bridge
        She drove past Ø and around the back of the house
    providing that the complement is common to both prepositions.
  4. Ellipting the adverbial
    Adverbials whether realised by adverbs or prepositional phrases can be ellipted providing they are common to both verbs so we get, e.g.:
        Mary was working in Brussels but I wasn't Ø
        Most of the children were playing happily in the sand silly but her son wasn't Ø
    In both cases, the adverbial is ellipted along with the main verb.
  5. Ellipting the subject or object noun phrase
    If the object is completely unambiguous, ellipsis is acceptable so we can have:
        I am doing the work because John can't Ø
    in which the object (the work) as well as the verb (do) are instantly identifiable by the hearer / reader.  The verb phrase is substituted by the modal auxiliary verb can + not and the object noun is ellipted.
    We cannot, however, ellipt the object of a verb phrase if there is any ambiguity so, for example, we allow:
        I'll take my car if you'll take yours
    substituting yours for the implied your car.
    We do not allow the object to be ellipted, however, even if it can be understood so
        *I'll take my car if you'll take
    is not allowable.
    We can, as we shall see, however, allow the auxiliary verb to stand for the whole verb phrase and its object as in:
        I'll take my car if you will Ø
    but that is ambiguous because we have not provided enough information concerning the ownership of the car.
    Nouns and noun phrases are often ellipted when they are pre-modified by adjectives so we get, for example:
        She took the long route and I took the short
    and the noun is uniquely recoverable.
    This frequently occurs with superlative forms of adjective modification and, less frequently, with comparative forms so, we get, e.g.:
        You take the biggest slice and I'll take the smallest
        Smith taught the younger children and his sister taught the olde
    It is common, too, for substitution to occur with the pro-form one(s):
        You take the biggest slice and I'll take the smallest one
        Smith taught the younger children and his sister taught the older ones
    Elision of the noun can only occur when the first noun is modified so we do not allow:
        *Pass me a stick and make it a long
  6. Ellipting the subject and auxiliary verbs
    We can shorten, for example:
        Though he was asked to carry on with the work, he went home
        Though Ø asked to carry on with the work, he went home
    However, if the subject is not the same such ellipsis is impossible so, although we can shorten:
        Though she was asked to carry on, they weren't asked to carry on
        Though she was asked to carry on they weren't Ø
    in which we can ellipt the verb phrase, asked to carry on, because it is common to both clauses, we cannot shorten the sentence to
        *Though asked to carry on they weren't
    because the subjects vary and the outcome is nonsense.
  7. Making verbless clauses
    We can also produce what are called verbless clauses by ellipting the subject and the verb as in shortening, for example:
        While John was on holiday in The States, he met his father
        While Ø on holiday in The States, John met his father
    but we cannot do this if the subject of both verbs is not the same because that creates too much ambiguity so shortening:
        While John was on holiday in The States, his father took him to Disneyland
        While on holiday in The States his father took him to Disneyland
    makes it unclear who was on holiday.
    Trying to do this kind of thing can result in what are called hanging participles in which it is unclear who or what is doing what.  We can have, e.g.:
        While I was on holiday in Spain, it rained every day
    but an attempt to ellipt the subject and verb results in the ridiculous:
        While on holiday in Spain it rained every day
    which suggest that it was on holiday.
  8. Reducing relative clauses
    We can reduce defining relative clauses by ellipting the relative pronoun and the verb phrase of which it is the subject so it is possible to reduce, e.g.:
        I took the paint which was left in the garage to finish the job
        I took the paint Ø left in the garage to finish the job
        He spoke to the children who were waiting in the playground very severely
        He spoke to the children Ø waiting in the playground very severely
    and so on.
    However, we cannot usually reduce non-defining relative clauses in the same way because, by definition, the added information in the relative clause is external to the main clause so shortening, e.g.:
        The train, which had been standing on platform 6, left late
        The train, standing on platform 6, left late
    is not permitted because it creates nonsense.
  9. Informal reductions
    Determiners, pronouns and auxiliary verbs (operators in many cases) can be ellipted only in informal speech or very informal writing such as emails. so we allow, for example:
        Ø Anyone want more potatoes?
        Ø Must go
        Ø Sorry not to have written earlier
    and so on where the operator, the pronoun and the pronoun + the auxiliary verb are omitted respectively.
  10. Ellipting conjunctions
    The conjunctions and and or can sometimes be ellipted, producing what is called asyndetic coordination (coordination without a conjunction).  For example:
        Quietly and carefully he opened the window
    may be reduced to
        Quietly, Ø carefully he opened the window
        Talking to customers or answering emails took most of my day
    could be shortened to:
        Talking to customers, Ø answering emails took most of my day
    We cannot, however, perform this trick with other conjunctions so shortening by removing the conjunctions in, e.g.:
        They were tired but happy
        She was pleased although slightly disappointed

    because that creates unfathomable senses:
        *They were tired, happy
        *She was pleased slightly disappointed

Here's a summary of what kinds of ellipsis are possible in English and some examples of errors if it is taken too far.  It will serve as a way of deciding what to teach and to avoid mixing things up and confusing learners.

summary ellipsis

If you have followed the guides to subordination and coordination, you will be aware of a phenomenon in English which is not parallelled in many language to do with the ellipsis of the subject in linked clauses.  The summary is:

  1. True coordinators (and, but and or) and the defective coordinators so and yet allow the subject to be omitted providing it refers to the same entity:
        Mary came home and Ø went straight to bed
        I looked but Ø couldn't see him anywhere
        I take the bus or Ø drive
        Mary went home early so Ø missed the end
        She was quite poor yet Ø spent freely on her friends
  2. The marginal coordinators for and so that do not allow the subject omission:
        She wore black make up so that she looked awful
        I called on her for I knew she would want some company
        *She wore black make up so that looked awful
        *I called on her for knew she would want some company
  3. True subordinators (i.e., nearly all other conjunctions) also do not allow the ellipsis of the subject:
        I stayed quiet because I know she wouldn't like the answer
        Wherever he looks he sees enemies
        They were in the kitchen when they heard the explosion
        *I stayed quiet because know she wouldn't like the answer
        *Wherever he looks sees enemies
        *They were in the kitchen when heard the explosion
    and so on.

Of course, in all these cases, if the subject is not co-referential to both clauses, it must be included whether in coordinated or subordinated clauses.



As we saw in the example at the beginning of the last section above, it is sometimes difficult to decide whether an item is being left out (ellipsis) or whether it is being replaced by another element in the clause (substitution).  A good example is in the list below with the use of some and any.  It is a moot point whether we have an instance of the items being used as a substitute for the noun phrase or whether the noun itself is simply being omitted.  As was noted, for teaching purposes, it doesn't matter.
The examples above contain a number of examples of substitution.  They can all be classified under the general heading of pro-forms because they all stand for other elements in some way.  The following is not a complete list and there are more examples further on in this guide.
Pro-forms can:

  1. Stand for noun phrases or nominalised clauses:
    • pronouns
          I liked the pretty porcelain ornaments so I bought them
          She lost her keys so she borrowed mine
          I enjoyed the music they played at the wedding but Mary hated it
    • one and ones
      This gets a separate category because the terms can only apply to count nouns (unlike pronouns such as it or mine) and are sometimes pro-forms and sometimes a cardinal numbers (in which case they may be stressed).
          That's too colourful.  Do you have any plain ones?
          Pass me a hammer.  I need a heavy one

      We saw above that when the first noun is modified, the noun may simply be ellipted so we get, for example:
          If you take the larger piece, I'll be happy with the smaller
      although many prefer to include the pro-form one(s) and this can only occur if the first noun is modified so we cannot have:
          Pass me a hammer.  *I need a heavy
    • demonstratives
          I didn't want the red book.  I wanted those
    • numerals
          I loved the dress so I bought two
    • the same
          My friend wants the omelette and I'll have the same
    • so
          He thinks she's coming to the party but I don't think so
    • some and any
          They all drank beer but I didn't want any
          This is delicious cake.  Don't you want some?
  2. Stand for adverbials (time, place and manner):
    • then
          I came early today and told you then that I'd be leaving at four
    • that and it
          I can get there tomorrow.  Will that be early enough?
          I put it in the garage because that seemed the best place
          She can't arrive till Tuesday but it will be OK
          We keep it in the hallway because it is the obvious place
    • here and there
          We have found a good restaurant near the hotel and here is where we eat most days
          I looked in the bedroom cupboards and there I found it
    • like that and (in) that way
          I try to be serious because that way I get the best response
          He was always sincere and in that way he managed to win people over
          She works pretty hard but it doesn't always look like that
  3. Stand for the verb phrase and sometimes the whole predicate
    • do
          I want to eat out but she doesn't
    • primary auxiliary verbs
          She hasn't eaten yet but I have already
          The fork was broken and so was the spade
    • modal auxiliary verbs
          I don't like it here but Mary might
          I can't come but John may
          I didn't do any work but they might have

Here's a graphical way of representing what we do with these devices.  The examples of ellipsis are outlined in yellow and the rest are substitutions of one kind or another.


Here are some of the examples again with some things to notice.
Think briefly about why they have been selected and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

I liked the car so I bought it
I liked the car so I bought one
eye open
I liked the car and she thought the same
eye open
I liked the shirt so I bought 6
eye open
I didn't enjoy the film but she did
eye open
Someone must have done it but he can't
eye open
I hope not
I think so
eye open
They work hard
Yes, they do but so do we
eye open
Something made a noise but I don't know what
eye open
I was told to speak but I was too shy to
eye open


Clausal ellipsis in spoken English

A dialogue such as:
    A: Why did you bring that book upstairs?
    B: I brought this book upstairs to read in bed

is at least unusual and very clumsy.
It would be better as
    A: Why did you bring that book upstairs?
    B: To read in bed
which ellipts the whole clause I brought this book upstairs

This is such a common phenomenon (and not only in English) that we can often forget the fact that learners can have some difficulty understanding the sense.  It is not always the case that this kind of ellipsis occurs in response to questions.  It can happen with all initiation types, for example:

Initiations which inform
A: I have bought a new sweater
B: Where?
Initiations which ask if
A: Can you help me with this?
B: Yes, of course I can.
Initiations which ask whether
A: Do you think it'll rain?
B: No chance.
Initiation which direct
A: Get me some chocolate when you are at the station, will you?
B: Sure.

For teaching purposes, we can call these response ellipses because they almost always occur in the response to some kind of initiation.  As was explained at the outset, the motivation for ellipsis in spoken English is often to make the focus or new information stand out.
Here are a few examples of clausal ellipsis in responses:

Try a short test on some of this.

Related guides
cohesion for more on how we hold things together grammatically and lexically
pro-forms for more on pronouns and more
discourse index for more guides to the area in general
deixis for more consideration of concepts such as the deictical centre (and how it may move)
negation for more on transferred negation
primary auxiliary verbs  for a general and rather simple guide to these verbs and what they do

Grice, HP, 1989, Studies in the Way of Words, Harvard: Harvard University Press