KISS Level 3.2.1 - Ellipsis in
Traditional grammarians speak of “ellipsis”;
modern linguists discuss “reduction.” As the instructional material suggests,
they are two different perspectives of the same thing — we simply leave
out words, often connecting or repetitious words, if the context provides
their meaning. Thus, when we say “Come in,” the context provides both the
subject and the object of the preposition “in.” ("In" means whatever place
the speaker is "in." We won't say "Come in," if we are outside.)
Ellipsis is a concept, not a construction,
and you will find it used in various places in the analysis keys. But to
help students understand the concept, we can provide examples of the ways
in which ellipsis is typically used.
As the explanation of semi-reduced clauses
suggests, ellipsis is an extremely important concept. Indeed, most compounding,
gerundives, appositives, post-positioned adjectives, and noun absolutes
can be seen as the result of reduction/ellipsis.
In instructional materials and analysis keys,
KISS used asterisks to insert ellipsed words.
The Exercises in KISS Level 3.2.1
Exercises 1 a & b - Ellipsis in S/V/C Patterns
Writers fairly frequently ellipse
verbs in parallel patterns based on the same verb but with different
subjects and complements:
Her figure was majestic, her manners charming, her whole appearance
beautiful beyond words.
Exercise 2 - Ellipsis in Subordinate Clauses
Her figure was majestic, her manners *were* charming,
her whole appearance *was* beautiful beyond words.
Flatterers look like friends, as wolves like dogs.
-- George Chapman
Flatterers look like friends, as wolves *look
like* like dogs.
After some words, especially
"than" and "as," words are ellipsed in subordinate clauses:
He looked gloomier than ever.
Exercise 3 - Semi-Reduced Clauses
He looked gloomier [than
*he had* ever *looked before*]."
He classified shirts and suits as expertly as
birds and mammals.
He classified shirts and suits as expertly [as
*he classified* birds and mammals].
They worked as hard as possible.
They worked as hard [as
it is possible to work].
Semi-reduced clauses are not very frequent,
primarily because they derive mainly from those adverbial conjunctions
that do not also function as prepositions. Compare the difference:
After they won the game, they had a party.
After winning the game, they had a party.
When they were playing a game, they did not want to be distracted.
When playing a game, they did not want to be distracted.
The reduction of a subordinate conjunction such as “after,” which can
also function as a preposition, results in a prepositional phrase with
a gerund as its object. But “when” is not considered a preposition, and
thus to explain this case, we need to refer to ellipsis.
Usually, the ellipsed subject is in the clause
that the semi-reduced clause modifies. Thus, when in students' writing
it is not, it is tempting to mark these as a form of dangling modifier.
But in the work of professional writers, the ellipsed subject may be implicit
in the context. Consider the following sentence from Nathaniel Hawthorne's
While occupied with these reflections,
a knock came at the door of the study, and the minister said, "Come in!"--not
wholly devoid of an idea that he might behold an evil spirit. (The Scarlet
Letter and Other Writings, ed. Leland S. Person. Norton Critical Edition,
Obviously, the "knock" is not occupied with the reflections. Some might
argue that "minister" is the implicit subject, but it appears is the following
main clause. That is a long time for readers to wait for a subject. In
context, the subject is clearer, but it is the ambiguous “he” in the previous
But he seemed to stand apart, and eye this former self with
scornful, pitying, but half-envious curiosity. That self was gone. Another
man had returned out of the forest; a wiser one; with a knowledge of hidden
mysteries which the simplicity of the former never could have reached.
A bitter kind of knowledge that!
How frequently such implicit subjects appear might be a good topic for
a research study, but the primary point here is that before we charge students
with errors, we need to be careful.
KISS considers these clauses as "semi" reduced
because most of them can be further reduced, thereby resulting in a gerundive:
When playing a game, they did not want to be distracted.
Playing a game, they did not want to be distracted.
Exercise 4 - Semi-Reducing Clauses
To reinforce the previous exercise, this one
has students rewrite a sentence by semi-reducing a clause.
Exercise 5 - Prepositional Phrase or Ellipsed
Harry was as clever at stable work as a much
In this type of sentence, the second "as" construction functions as
an adverb to the first "as." But what is that construction? Some grammarians
argue that it should be explained as an ellipsed subordinate clause:
Harry was as clever at stable work
[as a much
older boy *is clever at stable work*].
KISS accepts this explanation, but it requires
conscious knowledge of both subordinate clauses and ellipsis. In addition,
it does not always work. Consider, for example, the following sentence
from Black Beauty:
"I don't know a man anywhere," said master,
"that I should think so suitable for it as yourself."
Clearly, "as yourself is suitable" would not be
an acceptable subordinate clause. Thus "as yourself" is best explained
as a prepositional phrase. In some cases, in other words, the subordinate
clause explanation simply does not make sense -- the prepositional phrase
explanation is superior. Because of this, and because of ease in explanation,
we can also consider "as a much older boy" (in the first example) as a
At some point in their
instruction, students need to be taught that they must pay attention to
meaning and therefore check to see that what might look like a prepositional
phrase is, instead, an ellipsed clause. My favorite example of this is
a sentence written by a young female student:
No one can train a horse better than me.
A superficial reader of my work criticized this
example for being sexist and politically incorrect. It may be, but that
only reinforces my point. The sentence can be read as meaning "No one can
train a horse better than "they can train* me. Thus, in this case, which
is relatively rare, the sentence should have been written as, "No one can
train a horse better than I." The "I" forces the reader to see "I" as a
subject, and not an object.
The sentences in this
section explore the question of ellipsis and words that can function as
Exercise 6 - A Passage for Analysis
Like many of the passages for analysis, these
may include only one example or type of ellipsis. Finding several examples
within a single paragraph or poem will take some time.
|Suggested Directions for Analytical Exercises
First, write in (above the line) any ellipsed words. Then,
1. Place parentheses ( ) around each prepositional phrase.
2. Underline verbs twice, their subjects once, and label complements
(“PA,” “PN,” “IO,” or “DO”).
3. Place brackets [ ] around each subordinate clause. If the clause
functions as a noun, label its function. If it functions as an adjective
or adverb, draw an arrow from the opening bracket to the word that the
4. Place a vertical line after each main clause.
|Probable Time Required
If students have learned to analyze sentences
by thinking about what they mean, and if students have a fair mastery of
subordinate clauses, two or three exercises should give them a good command
of ellipsis so that they can recognize it in selections from this point
in KISS Level 3.2.1
4 - Semi-Reducing Clauses
5 - Prepositional Phrase or Ellipsed Clause?
6 - A Passage for Analysis
Studies in Ellipsis
| The item(s) below are cases that are so rare
that it would be very difficult to put enough examples together to make