What is ‘ellipsis‘ exactly? Ellipsis by definition means ‘omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete’. In spoken English, we quite often leave words out or omit them, because it is assumed that the meaning can be understood without them. 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.
(1) Ellipsis is used at the beginning of a sentence. (Most common form). Most common words to be left out are, articles (a/an, the), Possessives (my, his..), personal pronouns (I, you, he…), auxiliary verbs (have, be, do).
- 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.
(2) The second commonest form of ellipsis is when question tags are used. If you haven’t studied question tags yet, please see this link: 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?
(3) We use ellipsis with auxiliary verbs, but mainly when we want to apply strong meaning to our answer.
- 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.
(4) We use ellipsis with infinitives, omitting its complement(s) and not using the whole infinitive.
- 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.
(5) Ellipsis can be used in noun phrases when the meaning is absolutely clear to the recipient.
- 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.
(6) Lastly, ellipsis is very commonly used in English when using the conjunctions; but, and, or. We use this type of ellipsis both in spoken and written language to avoid redundancy.
- 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).
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.