Annals of ellipsis

From the Murdoch Mysteries special episode “A Very Murdoch Christmas”:

Det. Murdoch: (1) Mrs. Rankin, someone wanted your husband dead.

Mrs. Rankin: (2) And succeeded.

We see here ellipsis of the complement of a main verb — in this case, the verb succeed. But what material do we supply for the complement of suceeded in (2)? Certainly, there’s no obvious overt antecedent in the context in (1), but still the script writers got away with (2), which we understand as something like:

(2′) And succeeded in killing my husband / him.

This is a remarkably far from the textbook paradigm in which an ellipsis matches with an antecedent constituent in the preceding context. Instead, we paste together an interpretation for the elliptical material from the content of the material in the context, plus commonsense reasoning, and perhaps background factual knowledge as well.

Stand back for a moment. The ellipsis construction in (2) involves a main V that takes verbal complements (of several forms, depending on the V, so I’ll call it MainVCompEll, to distinguish it from a superficially similar ellipsis construction involving an auxiliary V, which I’ll then label AuxVCompEll (though its usual name in the literature is VPE, for Verb Phrase Ellipsis). (Try not to fret about the labels.)

Interpreting either of these ellipsis constructions involves retrieving the intended content of the missing material, and this is easiest when there is overt material in the context that supplies this content — an antecedent for the ellipsis. So we get typical examples like the following (with the verb hosting the ellipsis boldfaced):

AuxVCompEll: I tried to eat the whole thing, but I couldn’t ∅ ‘… but I couldn’t eat the whole thing

MainVCompEll: I started eating the whole thing, but I couldn’t finish ∅ ‘… but I couldn’t finish eating the whole thing

Things are frequently not so simple, however. In AuxVCompEll, the antecedent and ellipsis routinely differ in inflectional form:

AuxVCompEll: I tried eating the whole thing [PRP], but I couldn’t ∅ ‘but I couldn’t eat the whole thing [BSE]’

And in my postings on VPE, there are far greater divergences between antecedent and ellipsis, some beyond the pale for me.

Similarly for MainVCompEll. The verb succeed takes complements with the P in plus a nominal gerund complement (a VP in PRP form):

I succeeded in eating the whole thing (cf. I tried/*succeeded eating the whole thing, I tried/*succeeded to eat the whole thing)

But the antecedent and ellipsis don’t have to match in inflectional form, and in addition the P is omitted in ellipsis:

MainVCompEll: I tried to eat the whole thing [BSE], but I didn’t succeed ∅  ‘… but I didn’t succeed in eating the whole thing

Again, the divergences between antecedent and ellipsis can be great, as in (2) above, where the best I can do towards getting some formal relationship between the two is something like:

MainVCompEll: someone wanted your husband dead [Small Clause: NP + Predicative], and succeeded ∅  ‘… and succeeded in getting/making him dead [PRP]’



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