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What is ‘ellipsis‘ exactly? When do we use it in English? Well, ellipsis is the omission of one or more words from a sentence or question.

In spoken English, we quite often leave words out or omit them, because the speaker assumes that the meaning can be understood without said words. This is called ‘ellipsis‘.

The words that we omit are usually redundant and the person we’re speaking to (the recipient) already understands what we’re saying

Ellipsis being used at the beginning

  • Boss isn’t here. = The boss isn’t here.
  • Guy’s coming over tonight. = The guy’s coming over tonight.
  • Son’s at the office. = My son is at the office.
  • Will leave now, need to get going. = I will leave now, I need to get going.
  • Can’t send the fax. = It (the printer) can’t send the fax.
  • Cautious over the issue we talked about. = Be cautious over the issue we talked about.

(Ellipsis at the beginning is the most common form).

Most common words to be left out are, articles (a/an, the), Possessives (my, his…), personal pronouns (I, you, he…), and auxiliary verbs (to be, to have, to do…).   

Ellipsis with question tags

  • French, are you? = You aren’t French, are you?
  • Leaving so soon are you?= You aren’t leaving so soon, are you?
  • Having a hard time, are you? = You’re not having a hard time, are you?
  • Arrived late, have they? = They haven’t arrived late, have they?
  • See the contract, could you?= You couldn’t see the contract, could you?
English courses

We use ellipsis with auxiliary verbs

  • Leave me! = Leave me be.
  • She told me she’d come and she did. = She told me she’d come, and she did come.  (‘d = would, contracted form). 
  • He told me he would leave, but he hasn’t. = He told me he would leave, but he hasn’t left.
  • Are you getting up? I am! = Are you getting up? I am getting up.

We use ellipsis with infinitives, omitting its complement(s)

  • Is Jill coming today? She doesn’t want to. = She doesn’t want to come today.
  • Can you help me? I’m not able to right now. = I’m not able to help you right now.
  • Can someone give me a hand? I’ll ask John to. = I’ll ask John to give you a hand.
  • Did you bully him? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. = I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bully him.

Ellipsis can be used in noun phrases when the meaning is clear

  • Would you like some? = Would you like some chips (or whatever is being offered)
  • We’re staying at the Hilton. = We’re staying at the Hilton hotel. 
  • I studied at Oxford. = I studied at Oxford University. 
  • Are you going to Jason’s? = Are you going to Jason’s house?
  • She studied at Harvard. = She studied at Harvard University.

Ellipsis is very commonly used in English when using the conjunctions; but, and, or

  • Your plate and his plate are ready. = Your plate is ready and his plate is ready. (Do you see the redundancy? That’s why ellipsis is so important).
  • A mouse and keypad. = A mouse and a keypad.
  • He can read, but can’t write. = he can read, but he can’t write.
  • These friends and colleagues of yours. = These friends and those colleagues of yours.
  • Did you mean the English or the Germans? = Did you mean the English people or the German people? (‘people’ is completely redundant).

We use this type of ellipsis both in spoken and written language to avoid redundancy. 

When your English has reached a reasonably high level, you should feel free and are encouraged to use ellipsis all the time, especially in spoken English. It really does make sentences far less redundant and makes you sound just like a native.

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