Author Topic: Elliptical sentences often read and sound better than regular sentences  (Read 23194 times)

Joe Carillo

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Effective writers in English make an earnest effort to be truly economical with words. They don’t only methodically knock off redundancies but also prune out needlessly repetitive phrasing that might just turn off readers. In fact, when there’s no danger of breaking the flow of the exposition and of being misunderstood, they also deliberately drop certain predictable words and phrases from sentences and just depend on the reader to mentally fill them in based on context. This final step in streamlining the exposition yields what are called elliptical sentences—sentences that actually read better and sound better even if they have grammatical holes in them.

Constructing elliptical sentences is an advanced form of writing, but it can be mastered by studying the various patterns of the ellipsis—the grammatical hole in an elliptical sentence—and through continual practice. To familiarize Forum members with the elliptical construction basics, I have posted in this week’s edition of the Forum “The virtue of elliptical constructions,” a condensation of a two-part essay I wrote in 2005 for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I’m sure all those who desire a dramatic improvement in their writing will find it worthwhile to read and study it.


 

The virtue of elliptical constructions

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 and 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 issue, © 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. This condensed version subsequently became Chapter 70 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.
« Last Edit: June 20, 2017, 09:41:53 AM by Joe Carillo »