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Ellipsis - Definition And How To Use It Properly

Updated on December 17, 2016
Seckin Esen profile image

Seçkin Esen has been working as an English teacher for 6 years. He obtained his Bachelor's degree in ELT from Hacettepe University in 2010.

Ellipsis is a linguistic phenomenon that exists in all languages. It takes place when we leave out parts of sentences to avoid needless repetition. Ellipsis is typically more fully exploited in speech than in writing: it reflects the negotiation and co-operation that is an explicit feature of face to face interaction. We often do not bother to encode information that can be understood from the linguistic or situational context especially in face to face conversation. Therefore ellipsis is a very important element of language, especially while speaking. We have to take into consideration what functions the term ellipsis has in the language. This article attempts to shed light on omission of redundant information in English through an ever dominating process, ellipsis. It pinpoints the reasons behind this process and the effect it has on conveying a message from an addresser to an addressee. In this article, I tried to explain what ellipsis is, where it is used, what kind of ellipsis makes sentences less easy to understand, what unstressed words are left out in statements, and how to teach English using ellipsis.

What Is Ellipsis?

Ellipsis is the omission of one or more items from a construction in order to avoid repeating the identical or equivalent items that are in a preceding or following construction. We omit words which carry information which we know from the situation or from our shared cultural knowledge or from our knowledge of linguistic structure (Broughton, 1990:103). In ellipting some linguistic item(s) from a sentence, a speaker leaves out a part of an utterance for the listener to retrieve from the linguistic context, i.e., the elements surrounding the ellipted part. This can be illustrated by the following examples from English, the language under study in this paper. People who find such repetitions unnecessary or boring apply ellipsis where possible to achieve a more appropriate economy of statement. Besides reducing length and complexity, ellipsis helps to connect one part of a sentence or text to another. Accordingly, this sort of reduction helps us to save energy and be economical. The maxim concerning ellipsis, is that ‘reduce as much as possible’ without loss of identity from the context. To put it differently, all other things, being equal, better make use of ellipsis.

What Kind Of Ellipsis Makes Sentences Less Easy To Understand?

1. Situational Ellipsis:

A character tells his friend in a novel:

And you’ve had a bad time. Being ill.. And then, Alison…

The elliptical reference to Alison omits information which the two characters know, and which the reader shares from earlier chapters. The speaker really means And then, you must be worried about your mistress, Alison, who is still in an unfriendly country, where her feckless daughter has been arrested – or words to that effect. Situational ellipsis is a common feature of intimate and informal conversation – probably the most economical form of communication.

2. Cultural Ellipsis:

Karel ordered two teas, one with and one without.

She is able to omit sugar because she assumes her readers to be familiar with the kind of café involved, even to the lengths of mentally conjuring up the likely underlying (informal) dialogue: Two teas, please. - Sugar? - One with, one without.

3. Structural Ellipsis:

When a character writes in a friendly letter: You will be pleased to hear they say I will be able to get around quite well…

She uses an informal conversational style in which that is omitted twice. An optional that has been omitted from two that-clauses in direct object.

4. Textual Ellipsis:

In the following examples, ellipsis avoids needless repetition, but the omitted words are completely recoverable from the text.

Alison was very good at looking after him, when she chose to be.

I want you to tell me what I ought to do, who I should talk to.

The above examples show anaphoric ellipsis, in which the omitted words have already been used. Cataphoric ellipsis, in which the omitted word(s) occur later in the text, is less common. Anaphoric ellipsis is by far the more common and typical of conversation and informal writing. Cataphoric ellipsis is conscious, stylish device: it tightens up the structure of a sentence, but at the same time makes the sentence less easy to read (Broughton, 1990:104).

What Do We Omit And Where?

There are two functional situations where we omit items and two formal situations. The omission of words which carry obvious or known information is very common in casual, intimate speech, where we often drop the early unstressed words – initial ellipsis. In shorter spoken exchanges, the second speaker usually takes up an already stated topic, by way of agreement, disagreement, comment or other response. In such cases we use various kinds of ellipsis to avoid needless repetition – ellipsis in response structures. Phrases and sentences using and, but and or usually repeat information and are structures in which we frequently omit words – ellipsis in coordination.

a) Initial Ellipsis:

The omitted items have been so unstressed that we don’t hear them. Many common elliptical phrases have become almost fixed expressions appearing more often than not in elliptical forms: Very good. Wonderful. Crazy. Out! Fire! Bad luck. No chance. No problem. And most people will agree on what unstressed words have been left out.

We drop from the beginning of casual speech and thoughts words which carry little information. Some examples for initial ellipsis are:

‘Sorry’ she said.

‘Depressed?’ he said gently.

‘You there, Mrs. Smith?’

‘She still here?’

b) Ellipsis in Response Structures:

We use a response structure as a spoken reaction to someone else when we answer a question, agree or disagree with a statement, or comment on what someone has said. In most of these cases a full response would repeat information from earlier sentence. We avoid this repetition by using ellipsis.

‘Don’t you disapprove of capitalism?’

‘No. Why should I? Do you?’

‘Of course I don’t’

‘Well then, why should I?’

c) Ellipsis in Coordination:

When we use conjunctions like and, but and or to join words, phrases or clauses, we give them equal value. Coordinate phrases and sentences of this kind usually have at least one grammatical item in common, and this item is frequently omitted, especially when it is use for the second time. Indeed, in coordinate phrases joined by and we drop a common determiner more often than we repeat it: a boy and (a) girl, some bread and - butter, your uncle and – aunt.

d) Ellipsis in Subordination:

Subordinate clauses do not always have information or grammatical items in common with main clauses. That is why ellipsis is less common in subordinate clauses than in coordinate. Some examples are:

Don’t men know how to cook vegetables? If – not -, why don’t they learn? Are you sure you really want to-?

Implications For Teaching

Activity 1:

The teacher gives her students two types of statements and s/he wants from his/her students to choose the ones that are more economical in speech.

a. Marry ordered two teas, one with sugar and one without sugar.

b. Marry ordered two teas, one with and one without.

a. ‘Are you going now?’ -‘Yes, I’m going now.’

b. ‘Are you going now?’ -‘Yes.’

Activity 2:

The teacher gives her students a dialogue which has full statements, and wants from his/her students to make the dialogue more suitable and economical for speech.

A. Don’t you disapprove of boxing?

B. No, I don’t disapprove of boxing. Why should I disapprove of boxing? Do you disapprove of boxing?

A. Of course I don’t disapprove of boxing.

B. Well then, why should I disapprove of boxing?


Ellipsis is principle of reduction. We omit words which carry information we know from our shared cultural knowledge or from our knowledge of linguistic structure. There are four kinds of ellipsis which are situational, cultural, structural and textual ellipsis. Also there are four kinds of ellipsis according to what we omit and where. These are called initial ellipsis, ellipsis in response structures, ellipsis in coordination and ellipsis in subordination. All of these types of ellipsis are used to make the speech more fluent and economic.

To conclude, ellipsis is a fundamental feature which helps the speaker dispense with redundant linguistic items, thus avoiding being boring or over explicit. The more ellipsis one uses, the less energy and time one wastes and the more concise the massage becomes.


Broughton, G. 1990. The Penguin English Grammar. England: Penguin Books

Crystal, D. 1990. Rediscover Grammar. London: Longman Group Limited

Leech, C. 1979. A communicative Grammar of English. London: Longman Group Limited

Matthews, P. H. 1981, Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Thompson, G. 2004. Introducing Functional Grammar. New York: Oxford University Press

© 2014 Seckin Esen


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    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      I like the way you present this. Great hub.

    • Seckin Esen profile image

      Seckin Esen 3 years ago from Ankara, Turkey

      Thank you so much for your nice comment vkwok.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      Lots of important information to know on this topic. Thank you.

    • Seckin Esen profile image

      Seckin Esen 3 years ago from Ankara, Turkey

      You are very welcome teaches12345. Thank you for the comment.

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