Ellipsis: Definition and Examples in Grammar

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In grammar and rhetoric, an ellipsis is the omission of one or more words, which must be supplied by the listener or reader for the sentence to be understood. It is also the name of the punctuation mark ("...") used to show the location of missing words in a direct quote. This mark can also be used to indicate a long pause or a speech trailing off.

Key Takeaways: Ellipsis

• An ellipsis occurs when a word or a group of words is deliberately left out of a sentence.

• Ellipses can be marked or unmarked. When they are marked, they are indicated by the punctuation "...".

• Specific examples of ellipses are known as gapping, pseudogapping, stripping, and sluicing.

The adjective form of an ellipsis is elliptical or elliptic, and its plural form is ellipses. The first definition of ellipsis above is also known as an elliptical expression or elliptical clause. The term comes from the Greek elleipsis, meaning "to leave out" or "fall short."

In her book "Developing a Written Voice," Dona Hickey notes that ellipsis encourages readers to "supply what isn't there by stressing heavily what is."

How to Use Ellipsis

In speech, people often leave out unnecessary information and speak in shorthand. It's a way to be brief—and not repetitive—and still communicate clearly with others. For example, someone presented with a sensible argument might respond with a simple approval:

"Sounds logical."

To be grammatically correct, this sentence would need a noun—"It sounds logical" or "That sounds logical to me." In its abbreviated form, it's an elliptical expression, but native English speakers will have no trouble understanding it since the elided "it" or "that" can be inferred from the context.

Ellipsis is often used by fiction writers to create dialogue that resembles the way people really talk. After all, people don't always talk in full sentences. They trail off, they use halting speech, and they leave out words that other people in the conversation will be able to understand without hearing them stated explicitly. For example:

"I don't know how to say this," she said, looking down.
"You mean he's..."
"Yes, he's gone. I'm sorry."

Ellipsis can also be used in the narration itself. Few writers, for example, will describe everything a character does from one moment to the next, since these details are often unrelated to the main drama of the story. If a scene begins with a character walking out the door to go to work, the reader will easily fill in that the character already woke up and got dressed. This basic information can be elided in the interest of concision.

"When used well," author Martha Kolin writes, "the ellipsis can create a bond of sorts between the writer and the reader. The writer is saying, in effect, I needn't spell everything out for you; I know you'll understand."

Types of Ellipsis

Several different types of ellipsis can be used.

Gapping occurs in a sentence when words are left out, such as verbs after a conjunction.

Elizabeth likes the Minnesota Vikings and her father, the Patriots.

The word left out in the second half of the sentence is "likes." If it were complete, the end of the sentence would read "...and her father likes the Patriots."

A verb phrase ellipsis occurs in a sentence when a verb phrase (a construction made up of a verb and a direct or indirect object, such as "buys food" or "sells cars") is omitted.

Bob wants to go to the store, and Jane wants to as well.

In the second half of this sentence, the verb phrase "go to the store" is omitted.

Pseudogapping occurs in a sentence when most but not all of a verb phrase is omitted.

Ashley is managing the club Thursday, and Sam is Friday.

This sentence has pseudogapping because "managing the club" is omitted from the verb phrase "is managing the club Friday" in the second half of the sentence.

Stripping occurs in a sentence when everything is omitted from one clause except a single element. It is often accompanied by a particle such as "too," "also," or "as well."

She told John to come outside, and Ben too.

This is an example of stripping because "she told...to come outside" is omitted from the clause in the sentence half of the sentence, leaving only the element "Ben." The addition of "too" helps clarify the meaning.

When an ellipsis occurs as part of an interrogative clause (one beginning with the word "who," "what," "where," etc.), it is an example of sluicing.

Someone called for you yesterday, but I don't know who.

In the second half of the sentence, the interrogative clause "who called for you yesterday" is shortened to "who."

A noun phrase ellipsis occurs in a sentence when part of a noun phrase (a word or group of words that function as a subject or object) is omitted.

John saw two hawks in the sky, and Bill saw three.

This is an example of a noun phrase ellipsis because "hawks" is omitted from the noun phrase "three hawks." Notice that when a noun phrase ellipsis is used, the word or words that are omitted from one clause appear in the other clause.