Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Slippery Ellipsis

Posted by Neal on February 5, 2006

I remember sitting in my chemistry class one day during my junior year. The guy sitting in front of me was wearing his debate club T-shirt. On the back was our school mascot, a tiger, saying to another tiger, “Don’t panic.” The other tiger was replying, “I’m not!” (The debate club had some kind of inside joke involving the cathcphrase “Don’t panic” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Weird, I thought. When the preacher asks, “Do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?” and you say, “I do,” I thought, you have to mentally copy take this woman into the spot where something should be following do: “I do take this woman to be….” And when he asks, “Will you love, honor, and cherish…?” and you answer, “I will,” it’s understood that the love, honor, and cherish is carried over to complete the I will sentence: “I will love, honor, and cherish….” But here, when Tiger One says, “Don’t panic,” and Tiger Two says, “I’m not,” you can’t just take the verb from the first utterance and use it to complete the second one. If you do, you get *I’m not panic, which doesn’t work.

Shouldn’t Tiger Two be saying, “I don’t”? Well, he could, if he means to say he never panics. Or he could say, “I won’t,” if he and Tiger One are talking about some future operation. But what if Tiger One wants the non-panicking to happen right now, and Tiger Two is telling him that right now, he’s not panicking? It looks like I’m not is the only way to go, and you just have to mentally tweak panic and turn it into panicking before you use it to complete Tiger Two’s sentence.

I was reminded of this T-shirt at last month’s LSA conference during a session on verb-phrase ellipsis–that is, verb phrases that lack a verb phrase, such as the I’m not, I do, and I will examples above. The speaker whose talk particularly reminded me of the Don’t panic T-shirt was Ivan Sag, who talked about mismatches much bigger than trifling morphological details like panic vs. panicking. Those have been recognized for many years, and Sag summarized the standard view that as long as the present and missing VPs have the same meaning, the ellipsis is OK. So since Tiger One and Tiger Two were both talking about a situation in which Tiger Two is panicking, the mismatch is allowed. But Sag then went on to present cases where there is a mismatch in meaning…

  • Strict vs. sloppy identity
    John loves his wife, and so does Harry
    (under the reading in which Harry loves Harry’s wife)
  • Active-passive mismatch
    This needs to be done quickly, and I will.

  • Resolution of indexicals
    A: Do you think they’ll like me?
    B: Of course they will! [i.e., will like you, not will like me]
    (from Sag’s handout)
  • I’m gonna send them an email saying that Ling 1 is something they could take. I don’t think many of them will, though.
    (understood verb not the main verb, but take, buried in a relative clause)
    (from Sag’s handout)
  • Your parents aren’t home, but suddenly the police are.
    (at your house, that is, not theirs)
    (from Sag’s handout)

Some of the mismatches earlier in the list can be explained while maintaining the same-meaning story, but by page 6 of the handout, example after example of more elaborate mismatches made a good argument for Sag’s point: Trying to write rules for VP ellipsis based just on syntax or even semantics is hopeless. What really matters is what listeners can infer from some situation and use to fill in the missing VP.

2 Responses to “Slippery Ellipsis”

  1. Anonymous said

    a little bit of a tangent, but…

    I’ve noticed what I think is a national difference in how such ellipses are constructed. I’m American but have had many British and Canadian roommates, co-workers, etc. over the years. Where an American repeats the particular verb used by the original speaker, a Brit or Canadian often substitutes “do”. The most common case is something along the lines of “Want to /verb/?”, and the response, depending on nationality, either “Let’s /verb/.” or “Let’s do.” . If you mentally add the word “that” it’s not quite so startling to American ears: “Want to /verb/?” “Let’s do [that].” But I’ve heard other variations where even adding “that” doesn’t smooth it out, maybe because what’s being elided is so long + complex : “Do you know whether Mary’s going to bake a cake for the party tomorrow at Jane’s?” “Yes, she’ll do.”–>

  2. […] written about strict vs. sloppy anaphora (aka strict vs. sloppy identity) a couple of times before. The canonical example, at least for me, is an old joke that plays on it: Wife: Jim […]

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