Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Ellipsis, Elision, Suppletion

Posted by Neal on August 23, 2008

As I was starting to write about the analysis of the Dark Knight coordination from the last post, I decided to get some background out of the way. Specifically, it’s that the analysis is based on ellipsis, which is the omission of parts of a phrase which can be inferred from context. It happens all the time in natural language, in examples like I’m allowed to [do something], but you’re not [allowed to do that thing], or When [did you see them]?, or the intended interpretation of Throw away whatever you want.

Ellipsis, or elliptical construction, is fine for a noun form, but often linguists need to talk specifically about the missing material. How do they refer to it? Well, you can do what I just did, and call it the missing material. But if you want to introduce the fact that the material is missing as new information, as in the verb phrase is/has …, what do you do? You need some verb-equivalent for the noun ellipsis that you can passivize. Some linguists simply treat ellipse as a verb, and then can fill in the blank with ellipsed. Others use the circumlocution undergone ellipsis. More often, though, at least in the papers I’ve read and the talks I’ve heard, they resort to suppletion.

Suppletion is the term for what’s going on when a language has forms of a word (e.g. its past tense, its plural, etc.) that are so irregular that they’re not even historically from the same source. Well-known English examples include better/best (instead of *gooder/goodest), went (not *goed), was/were and is/are (not *beed and *bes/be). The suppletive form that linguists use instead of ellipsed or undergone ellipsis is elided.

I’m uncomfortable with the use of elided to describe the missing material in an elliptical construction. To me, elision is a phonological process whereby sounds or syllables are weakened to the point of not being pronounced at all, the most familiar case to speakers of European languages probably being elision in French: You don’t say *le homme; you say l’homme. Ellipsis, on the other hand, is a syntactic or pragmatic process (depending on who you ask). Whether I can say I do doesn’t depend on whether the omitted material starts with a vowel or a consonant; it only depends on whether the thing I’m doing can or can’t be inferred from the context.

UPDATE, June 2, 2009: In an email to the American Dialect Society mailing list, Randy Alexander notes the use of ellipt (a backformation from elliptical) to fill this gap.

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