Archive for the ‘Ellipsis’ Category

Ruthie on meanings

October 19, 2017

Two recent One Big Happy strips:

(#1) What does /sǽtǝn/ mean?

(#2) What does anaphoric do that refer to?

#1 plumbs Ruthie’s knowledge of the English lexicon (satin is unfamiliar to her, so she does the best she can with it from what she knows), #2 her ability to use anaphoric elements in context (she’s an ace at wielding “sloppy identity”).


Annals of ellipsis

August 31, 2016

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.


VPE way over the line

May 18, 2016


(If you’re averse to technicalities of linguistics, this isn’t for you.)

Our text for the day comes from the tv show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, in the episode “Malice in Wonderland”, first broadcast on 3/28/12:

Olivia [Hodges’s mother]: Besides, I haven’t been totally honest with you about my romantic situation.
Hodges: What, the count?
(1) Olivia: He wasn’t a count. It’s possible he doesn’t even know how to ___.

The underscore marks the position of the elliptical material, in this case a BSE-form VP  count ‘recite numbers in ascending order’. We then cast around for an antecedent VP in the text; this wouldn’t have to be a BSE-form VP (divergences in inflectional form between antecedent and ellipsis are common in Verb Phrase Ellipsis (VPE); there are Pages on this blog with examples, and an index of them) — but there’s no plausible VP to be found in this text. Instead, there’s only a noun count ‘a rank of European nobleman’, which is phonologically and orthographically identical to the verb count, but otherwise has nothing to do, etymologically or synchronically, with this noun. The example is flagrantly zeugmatic.

It’s not that nouns can never be antecedents for an elliptical VP in VPE — discussion of such cases below — but this particular noun is totally unsuited to be an antecedent for this particular ellipsis. It’s all an elaborate play on words. (For the record, I was delighted by it, all the more so because it appeared in a dialogue that, though light-hearted in tone, was not jokey in character and concerned a serious matter (the abject failures of Olivia’s supposed fiancé). It was a pleasant surprise.)


Data postings

July 29, 2015

A new feature in the set of “Linguistics notes” Pages on this blog: data postings, two so far. Each of them has three parts: an inventory of postings on the topic (from Language Log and this blog); “raw data” (a collection of numbered notes on examples (jottings on examples, observed on the fly or taken from e-mail, mailing lists, or blog postings); and an index to the examples, keyed to the numbered notes. All three types of material will be regularly updated.


Odds and ends 2/13/14

February 13, 2014

Two (unrelated) items in my queue, on familiar topics: ambiguity and government by the nearest.


Brief mention: ellipsis over the line

September 10, 2013

Heard (many times) on tv, in an ad for the drug Xeljanz:

Don’t take Xeljanz if you have any kind of infection, unless OK with your doctor.

Unless OK with your doctor is an ellipsis over the line for me; for me, it would have to be unless that’s / it’s OK with your doctor. But obviously that’s not the case for everybody. From two other pieces of medical advice:

Avoid enemas and laxatives unless OK with your doctor. (link)

you shouldn’t take any medication while nursing unless ok with your doctor (link)


don’t know

May 29, 2013

Today’s Zits:

The dad’s “I don’t know” conveys that he’s unsure of his opinion on the subject (whatever that is), so he says “Ask Mom”, meaning ‘Ask Mom what she thinks”, with ellipsis of the Wh-clause object of ask, but with understood reference (within that object) to the mother. But Jeremy takes the other possible reading, involving reference to the father — i.e., ‘Ask Mom what I think’ — which, though possible, is unlikely in context (how should the mother know what the father thinks, when he doesn’t know himself?).


The Colbert Ellipsis

June 17, 2012

A Matt Bors cartoon (found via Funny Times):

Entertaining as the political message is, my interest here is in the syntax of:

Now I’m a specimen of cold, robotic elitism and horrible acts I can’t quite recall – and so can YOU with my FREE Bully Manual!

with a remarkable ellipsis in and so can YOU ‘and so can YOU be’ — for which we can surely thank Stephen Colbert.


That’s WH!

May 20, 2012

Today’s Zippy:

Entertaining though the comments on fashion are, my interest here is in the sequence:

Q: Who wears high fashion?
A: Dingburgers..that’s who!

with an ellipsis in the answer that’s a special case of the Sluicing construction discussed in my “Siren song” posting.


as would’ve

August 9, 2011

A little while ago Geoff Pullum wrote me with what he thought might be a counterexample to our treatment of Auxiliary Reduction in English (in “Cliticization vs. inflection” and in the longer, still unpublished version of  “Licensing of prosodic features by syntactic rules: The key to Auxiliary Reduction”). The relevant bit is the third instance of would’ve in this passage from a review in Slate (all three instances boldfaced here):

It’s fun to think about what Cowboys & Aliens might have been if any creativity had crept past the title page. Instead of bonding over their shared humanity, it would’ve been fascinating to see the cowboys and Indians take opposite sides in the movie’s climactic intergalactic battle. Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians. Or Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians & Predator. What we’re left with instead is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. (link)

[extracted from this] (1) Cowboys & Aliens vs. Indians would’ve been a far superior film, as would’ve Cowboys vs. Aliens & Indians.

The crucial fact is that the third instance seems to be in an occurrence of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion (SAI); the other two are instances of Subject+VP (SVP), which (while they might set the scene for the third would’ve) doesn’t involve inversion. The problem is that SAI inverts a single auxiliary, while on the Z&P analysis of reduced auxiliaries, would’ve is, from a syntactic point of view, a sequence of two auxiliaries.