Ellipsis on an island

Malcolm Gladwell, “Offensive Play”, New Yorker 10/19/09, p. 52, quoting a football player:

(1) “They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting.”

“I probably shouldn’t have ___” contains an instance of Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE); the underlines mark the location of the elliptical material. VPE is a type of anaphora, zero anaphora in particular, so we need to find a referent for the missing VP.

The way VPE normally works is that the referent is supplied by an overt VP in the linguistic context that serves as an antecedent for the anaphor, as in this real-life example, where the antecedent is bold-faced.

I lost weight with Jenny Craig, and you can ___ too.

(that is, you can lose weight with Jenny Craig too.)

But sometimes the referent has to be dug out from non-VP material. Some people find such examples unacceptable — they are often at least hard to process — and there’s a considerable literature about some of them, under the heading “anaphoric islands”; see the Language Log discussion here.

(1) is such a case, where the elliptical material is something like “practiced” or “gone to practice” and the referent has to be dug out “from within” the noun practice, which is derived from the verb practice.

Some further examples (some of them intentionally jokey) from my collection:

(2) Many cases go unrecorded, and those that are ___ rarely make it to court. [referent from within the adjective unrecorded]

(3) Me: That’s a gift.
Wife: And he is ___. He’s very gifted. [referent from within the noun gift; note wife’s repair.]

(4) Constants aren’t ___ and variables don’t ___. [referents from within the nouns constants and variables]

(5) Friendly fire isn’t ___. [referent from within the NP friendly fire]

(6) one of those see-through blouses you don’t even want to ___! [referent from within the adjective see-through]

(7) A Writer Who Doesn’t ___ [referent from within the noun writer]

2 Responses to “Ellipsis on an island”

  1. Anaphora in the park « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] is a straightforward “anaphoric island” example — some discussion here — with the noun poo ‘feces’ “inside” the verb poo, and its do/take a […]

  2. The sound in your head « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] can’t “reach inside” words. (Brief discussion here; examples of AIC violations here and […]

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