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Concourse 2

Substitution and ellipsis

omit replace

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

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 used to refer to things in the text, e.g.:
        I don't really need reading glasses but they help
    and first- and second-person pronouns are used to refer to people and things outside the text, e.g.:
        I liked the shirt but you didn't like it
        Maggie, Jim and I set out on time but we 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 elided (left out), leaving only the auxiliary verb and the negative particle.  The verb have is clearly understood by both speakers.
  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 verb come has been elided, leaving only the auxiliary verb and the negative particle (No, it hasn't).  Clearly, the verb come is understood.
  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 auxiliary standing for the lexical 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 elides the verb and its object from the first half.
    or even
        She loves gardening and Tom, too
    eliding the whole verb phrase and its object
    In this case the adverb too must be inserted or we understand that she loves Tom (and the ambiguity is still present).
  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 followed by do or its variant do so.
    In this case, 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.
  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 verbs in simple past and simple present tenses.  For example:
        She promised to come early and did
        He thought it would rain but it didn't

    In tenses in the progressive and perfect aspect we can remove the main lexical verb and leave the 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 very long verb phrases 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 elided because they are common to both verbs.  The object of both verbs is the car.
    At other times, various parts of the sentence can be elided, for example:
        They have painted the house and the garage
    eliding the subject, the auxiliary verb and the main verb
        I have washed the car and painted the door
    eliding only the subject and the auxiliary verb because the object of each verb is different
        She has cleaned and repaired the door
    eliding the object common to both verbs and the auxiliary.
  8. The exchange:
        Where is she?
        She is in the garden

    changed to
        Where is she?
        In the garden

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

cut out


Ellipsis (or elision) 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.
In something like
    I liked the car so I bought three
there are a number of possibilities (of them, cars, more etc.) so this is not a case of ellipsis in the technical sense.  For teaching purposes, that doesn't really matter.

Here's a graphical way of representing what we do with these devices.  The examples of ellipsis are outlined in red 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 car 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
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 elision in spoken English

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

is at least unusual and very clumsy.
It would be better as
    Why did you bring that book upstairs?
    To read in bed
which elides 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 elision occurs in response to questions.  It can happen with all initiation types, for example:

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

For teaching purposes, we can call these response elisions because they almost always occur in the response to some kind of initiation.  Here are a few examples of clausal elision in responses:

  • Conditional sentences
    • What will you do if he is late?
      Carry on without him

      (eliding the if clause)
    • I'm taking the train
      If they are running

      (eliding the main clause)
  • Causal subordinate clauses
  • Why are you taking your laptop?
    In case I need to check my email

    (eliding the main clause)
  • Additive clauses
  • He's winning at the moment
    And looks like he'll take the points

    (eliding the first half of a compound sentence)
  • Adversative subordinate clauses
  • The weather's lovely
    But it won't last

    (eliding the main clause)
  • Concessive clauses
  • She gave him a lovely present
    Even though she couldn't afford it

    (eliding the main clause)
  • Directives
  • Tell me the answer to the fifth item

    (eliding everything except the complement)
  • Elicitations
  • Is the weather very cold at this time of year?
    Not where we live.

    (eliding the clause and inserting Not for the negative verb phrase)

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