Sunday, August 28, 2011

Deconstructing and understanding those puzzling elliptical sentences


During the past three weeks, several members of Jose Carillo's English Forum made postings that expressed puzzlement over certain sentences that seemed to make sense grammatically even if they were clearly faulty in structure, with some words—sometimes even the obligatory verb—conspicuously missing. In practically every case, those sentences turned out to be elliptical sentences—sentences that surprisingly read right and sound right even if they appear to violate grammatical and structural rules with impunity.

To help learners of English deconstruct and understand such sentences, I wrote “The virtue of elliptical constructions,” a two-part essay for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2005. I am now posting that essay here not only to amplify and substantiate the quick explanations I have given to inquiring Forum members but also to give solid grounding on the subject to all those seeking to further enhance their English. (August 28, 2011)

The virtue of elliptical constructions

Part I:

Often in our English-language readings, we come across sentences that have certain words evidently missing yet surprisingly read right and sound right as well: “Those who wish to [...] can very well join me.” “The youngest staff in the office is as competent as the eldest [...].” “If she wants more of those 1905 coins, my brother can give her plenty [...].” In each instance, although a noun and a verb have been shed off somewhere, the sentences prove to be grammatically and semantically correct. They are, in fact, none the worse for the grammatical holes in them.

As suggested by the three periods enclosed by brackets, each of those grammatical holes is an ellipsis, and the sentences where they occur are called elliptical sentences. We can say that elliptical sentences reflect the natural aversion of humans to unnecessarily repeat themselves. The elliptical sentences shown above, for instance, are simply more concise constructions of these sentences: “Those who wish to join me can very well join me.” “The youngest staff in the office is as competent as the eldest staff in the office.” “If she wants more of those 1905-issue coins, my brother can give her plenty of those 1905-issue coins.”

By now the pattern and logic of elliptical constructions should be clear: they gracefully knock off repetitive words and phrases. The ellipsis takes it for granted that the reader would just mentally fill in the gaps with the missing grammatical elements.

As a rule, elliptical sentences consist of two independent clauses, one containing the grammar elements the other has left out. The independent clause with the missing elements is the elliptical clause—an abbreviated adverb clause stripped of its subject and verb.

Consider this sentence: “Although she is known for her ravishing beauty, Cornelia has an uncommonly vile temper.” Its adverb clause is “she is known for her ravishing beauty,” with “although” as subordinating marker; the independent clause is “Cornelia has an uncommonly vile temper.” Now see what happens when we make the adverb clause elliptical: “Although […] known for her ravishing beauty, Cornelia has an uncommonly vile temper.” Even after shedding “she is,” the sentence works just fine—more concise and emphatic, in fact, than the scrupulously complete one.

Ellipses can streamline sentences in many ways. Here are some of the common elliptical forms we’ll usually encounter in our English-language readings:

(1) The routine omission of “that” in modifying clauses, particularly in spoken English. This is the most familiar use of the ellipsis. Example: “They knew […] two years would be the shortest time […] they would need to subdue the enemy forces.” (Normal form: “They knew that two years would be the shortest time that they would need to subdue the enemy forces.”) Tongues are normally averse to wagging too many “that’s.”

(2) Elliptical noun phrases. Example: “Jennifer asked for the pink blouse but the salesclerk gave her the red […].” (Normal form: “Jennifer asked for the pink blouse but the salesclerk gave her the red blouse.”) Quite naturally, the disciplined mind resists the need to belabor the obvious.

(3) Ellipsis of the verb and its objects or complements. Example: “The beleaguered Supreme Court chief justice would fight it to the very end if he could […].” (Normal form: “The beleaguered Supreme Court chief justice would fight it to the very end if he could fight it to the very end.”)

(4) Medial (middle) ellipsis.  Example: “Arlene will take care of the girls and Eduardo […], the boys.” (Normal form: “Arlene will take care of the girls and Eduardo will take care of the boys.”) This fine ellipsis separates sophisticated English-language users from rank beginners.

(5) Ellipsis of clause. Examples: “They can leave now if they want […].” (Normal form: “They can leave now if they want to leave now.”) Certain elliptical clauses, however, need a comma to indicate that some words have been intentionally left out; otherwise, confusion might arise. Properly elliptical: “My tour group chose Paris; theirs, Rome.” Improperly elliptical: “My tour group chose Paris; theirs Rome.” (Normal form: “My tour group chose Paris; their group chose Rome.”)

(6) Ellipsis when words are left out in comparisons using “that” or “as.”  This is the trickiest ellipsis of all because we need to first establish the correct pronoun by filling in the missing words in the elliptical clause. Consider these two sentences: “Helen loves you more than I.” “Helen loves you more than me.” Gut feel tells us that only one of them is grammatically correct, but both actually are. For each of the sentences, in fact, we can fill in the missing words in a different way. The first turns out to be the elliptical construction of “Helen loves you more than I love you”; the second, of “Helen loves you more than she loves me.” Each is as grammatically and semantically airtight as the other.

Isn’t it nice that with the ellipsis, we can have it short and sweet both ways? (April 25, 2005)

Part II:

We continue our discussion of the ellipsis, which we defined in the preceding essay as a streamlining device that deliberately knocks off words and phrases from sentences and does not bother to replace them, depending instead on the reader or listener to mentally fill in the missing words based on context. We already took up the noun ellipsis, a gap in prose that takes the place of the noun phrase referred to in a previous clause or sentence. This time we will look more closely into the two other major types of ellipsis:  the verb ellipsis and the clause ellipsis.

Verb ellipsis. This type of ellipsis comes in two kinds. The first is the verb ellipsis that knocks off the verb and the modifying phrase that follows that verb, as in this statement: “He is a magnanimous yet strict boss, generous almost to a fault but never hesitant to dismiss incompetent people from their jobs when he has to […].” Here, the ellipsis dropped the second mention of the verb “dismiss” and the words “incompetent people from their jobs” to avoid needless repetition. The result is a more compact and elegant sentence than this one that doesn’t use ellipsis: “He is a magnanimous yet strict boss, generous almost to a fault but never hesitant to dismiss incompetent people from their jobs when he has to dismiss incompetent people from their jobs.”

Here’s another example: “It’s a pity that the new marketing assistant has to go. Our personnel manager was convinced that she didn’t perform well in her job, but on the whole, I really think she did […].” Here, the ellipsis dropped the second mention of the verb “perform” and the words “well in her job” to streamline the statement. See how repetitive the statement becomes when it doesn’t use ellipsis: “It’s a pity that the new secretary has to go. Our personnel manager was convinced that she didn’t perform well in her job, but on the whole, I really think she did perform well in her job.”

The second type of the verb ellipsis, on the other hand, knocks off the subject and the finite verb of a sentence. In the following statement, for example, the second, third and fourth sentences are elliptically constructed: “Can you imagine what we should be doing now had we joined the company outing? […] Swimming at the beach. […] Playing billiards at the clubhouse. Or […] singing at the karaoke bar at one of the beach cottages.” See how tedious and weird-sounding that passage becomes if, instead of using ellipses, it repeatedly uses the subject “what we should be doing now” and the finite verb “is” in all of the three succeeding sentences: “Can you imagine what we should be doing now had we joined the company outing? What we should be doing now is swimming at the beach. What we should be doing now is playing billiards at the clubhouse. Or what we should be doing now is singing at the karaoke bar at one of the beach cottages.”

Clause ellipsis. This type of ellipsis drops most of the words of the clause referred to in a previous sentence, simply retaining the question word “why,” “what,” “where,” or “how” to announce the missing parts of the clause.

A clause ellipsis that uses the question word “why”: “Most people go through life without examining their fiercely held religious and political beliefs. They blindly run their affairs based on these beliefs not knowing why […].” See how repetitious this statement becomes without the ellipsis: “Most people go through life without examining their fiercely held religious and political beliefs. They blindly run their affairs based on these beliefs not knowing why they blindly run their affairs based on these beliefs.”

A clause ellipsis that uses the question word “what”: “You’ve been asking me what I have been doing all these years. Trying to live a good life, that’s what […].” Gracelessly repetitive without the ellipsis: “You’ve been asking me what I have been doing all these years. Trying to live a good life, that’s what I have been doing all these years.”

A clause ellipsis that uses the question word “where”: “We should be able to find a place to cool off from this terrible heat. The only problem is where […].” Terribly wordy without the ellipsis: “We should be able find a place to cool off from this terrible heat. The only problem is where to find a place to cool off from this terrible heat.”    

These, then, are some of the many ways that the ellipsis can make our writing and speech more cohesive, compact, and forceful. We should use them at every opportunity to give not only greater convincing power but also a touch of elegance to our prose. (May 2, 2005)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 25 and May 2, 2005 © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. The essay in Part I later appeared as Chapter 70 in the book Giving Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo.

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