A Guide to Elliptical Constructions

By Mark Nichol

An elliptical construction is one in which a word or phrase implied by context is omitted from a sentence, usually because it is a repetition of a preceding word or phrase. The three principal types of elliptical construction, with the omitted text enclosed in brackets, follow:

Noun ellipsis: “I went swimming, and John went [swimming], too.”

Verb ellipsis: “She favors romantic comedies, and Jane [favors] musicals.”

Verb-phrase ellipsis: “He went for a walk, but they didn’t [go for a walk].”

In a sentence in which repeated elements recur in more than one clause, a comma marks the elision of these words or phrases, and the clauses are separated by semicolons: “Igneous rock is formed from the cooling and solidification of magma of lava; sedimentary, from sedimentation of surface and underwater material; and metamorphic, from heat or pressure action on igneous, sedimentary, or another metamorphic type of rock.”

In simpler sentences, you may omit the comma if you also replace a semicolon with a conjunction: “Molten rock is called magma in its subterranean form and lava during and after eruption.”

But if you retain the semicolon, retain the marker comma as well: “Molten rock is called magma in its subterranean form; lava, during and after eruption.”

Elliptical construction is particularly useful when listing statistics: “In 2010, he hit fifty-five home runs; in 2009, thirty-seven; and in 2008, forty-six,” or “In the school election, Tom received 345 votes and Tina 322.”

Proper ellipsis in sentences spoken by different people varies: When John says, “Mary graduated,” Jane can simply reply, “She did?” rather than echoing, “She did graduate?” or “Did she graduate?” But if John says, “Mary graduated with honors,” Jane can’t respond, “Jim with highest honors.”

When a verb form is omitted in one of two instances, its repetition, not its original appearance, should be omitted: “My sister has never gone mountain climbing, and never will,” not “My sister has never and will never go mountain climbing.” (“My sister has never . . . go” is ungrammatical.)

When using an elliptical construction that in its full form would employ the comparative terms as and than, do not omit the first instance of the terms before the conjunction: “Golden eagles are as large as and just as majestic as bald eagles,” not “Golden eagles are as large and just as majestic as bald eagles.” Similarly, do not omit than: “Coyotes are smaller than but just as impressive as wolves,” not “Coyotes are smaller but just as impressive as wolves.”

To test for grammatical soundness, temporarily omit the phrase including the conjunction and the comparative up to the object: “Golden eagles are as large . . . bald eagles” and “Coyotes are smaller . . . wolves” are ungrammatical.

Also, be sure to omit only the words not essential for clarity: “The bus doesn’t go to or return from the city,” not “The bus doesn’t go or return from the city.”

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6 Responses to “A Guide to Elliptical Constructions”

  • Stephen

    I didn’t realise elliptical constructions were this complicated. I will have to keep an eye on mine. Thanks!

  • Keith

    “Golden eagles are as large as and just as majestic as bald eagles,” not “Golden eagles are as large and just as majestic as bald eagles.”

    Not sure I agree with that. The first, ‘correct’, sentence reads very poorly, and the second sentence would actually be my preference. Adding a couple of commas will concisely demonstrate the logic:
    “Golden eagles are as large, and just as majestic, as bald eagles.”

  • David Lambert

    I love your material.

    In the second sentence above, shouldn’t it be “three principal types”?

    Take care.

  • Chris

    And “Golden eagles are as large and majestic as bald eagles” is clearly grammatical; by the logic in the article you would have to say “are as large as and as majestic as bald eagles.”

  • thebluebird11

    –But if John says, “Mary graduated with honors,” Jane can’t respond, “Jim with highest honors.”
    *But Jane could say, “And Jim with highest honors,” as if she were completing John’s thought.

    –When a verb form is omitted in one of two instances, its repetition, not its original appearance, should be omitted: “My sister has never gone mountain climbing, and never will,” not “My sister has never and will never go mountain climbing.”
    *But you could say, “My sister never has gone, and never will go, mountain climbing.” (I suppose you might be able to leave out the comma after ‘go’).

    This whole elliptical-construction thing has so many people confused, and I don’t understand what the confusion is about. The correct form seems so obvious, yet people mess it up (as in your last example of the bus going/returning). It’s NOT that complicated! You just need to complete your thought properly! This might be a bit harder in a conversation, which is more impromptu, but something written should be proofread, preferably by someone besides the author, for clarity, before being disseminated.

    Thanks DWT! Keep up the great posts!

  • Fred

    Mark,

    Although I very much enjoy your articles, one of my biggest pet peeves is the misuse of ‘principle’ for ‘principal’ (and vice versa). Unfortunately, this grammatical mishap occurs in the second sentence of your article where you should have written, “The three principal types of elliptical construction …”

    Thanks!

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