Gapping Explained

A construction in which part of a sentence is omitted rather than repeated. The missing grammatical unit is called a gap.

The term gapping was coined by linguist John R. Ross in his dissertation, "Constraints on Variables in Syntax" (1967), and discussed in his article "Gapping and the Order of Constituents," in Progress in Linguistics, edited by M. Bierwisch and K. E. Heidolph (Mouton, 1970).

Examples and Observations:

  • "The cars were old-fashioned; the buses, too."
    (Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Broadway Books, 2006)
  • "Arnaud was his closest friend; Peter, his oldest."
    (James Salter, Light Years. Random House, 1975)
  • Forwards and Backwards
    "Gapping ... describe[s] a transformation which creates gaps in a sentence after a conjunction by deleting a verb which would otherwise reappear, e.g. Caroline plays the flute and Louise (plays) the piano. Gapping can work forwards, as above, or backwards as in the deletion of the first mention of the word. According to Ross the direction of the gapping depends on the constituent branching in the deep structure, and provides insight into the underlying word order of a language.
    (Hadumod Bussmann, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Taylor & Francis, 1996)
  • Verb Deletion
    Consider the pattern in (154):
    a. John likes coffee and Susan likes tea.
    b. John likes coffee and Susan — tea.

    (154) illustrates a pattern known as gapping. Gapping is an operation which deletes a constituent in one sentence under identity with a constituent of the same type in a preceding sentence. More particularly, gapping in (154b) deletes the second verb of two co-ordinated clauses; this is possible because the deleted verb is identical to the verb of the first sentence. In (154b) the verb is gapped but, crucially, its NP [Noun Phrase] complement is left behind.
    (Liliane M. V. Haegeman and Jacqueline Guéron, English Grammar: A Generative Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell, 1999)
  • Gapping in Written English
    "Certainly, some constructions are overwhelmingly found in written language. An example is the English 'Gapping' construction, as in John ate an apple and Mary a peach, where an implicit ate is omitted from the second clause, understood as Mary ate a peach. Tao and Meyer (2006) found, after an extensive search of corpora, that 'gapping is confined to writing rather than speech.' In the Elia Kazan movie The Last Tycoon, a powerful film director rejects a scene in which a French actress is given the line 'Nor I you,' on the grounds that this is unnatural speech. But his colleague, with earthier instincts, comments on this line with 'Those foreign women really have class.' This rings true. The gapping construction is classy, and restricted to quite elevated registers, though it is not lacking entirely from spoken English."
    (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2012)