Am I missing something?: raising awareness of ellipsis and substitution

Photo Credit: Bob.Fornal via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bob.Fornal via Compfight cc

When students fail to understand something they read or hear, this often isn’t because they don’t understand the words being used. In fact, it may be because of the words that aren’t being used.

In both speaking and writing there is a tendency to either leave out words we think are unnecessary (ellipsis) or to use another single word in place of a longer phrase (substitution). This can cause considerable confusion for learners, especially when listening, as there is no chance to go back and try and work out the meaning.

It’s also something that teachers, as proficient speakers of English, often overlook. Not least because we find it complicated to explain, even though we may easily understand what the speaker or writer is trying to say.

Ellipsis

There are generally considered to be two different kinds of ellipsis, situational and textual.

Situational ellipsis is, unsurprisingly, where the situation or context makes the missing element clear. It’s informal and mostly used in conversation.

For example, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ can easily become ‘Tea?’ if you are waving a mug at someone, or even just sitting in the kitchen.

Textual ellipsis has more grammatical ‘rules’, and can be found in both speech and writing. It could be defined as when we omit something that has already been mentioned (so doesn’t need to be repeated), or when what is missing is clearly recoverable from the text.

E.g. I went to the bakers to get some wholemeal rolls and (I went) to the butchers for lamb chops.

Textual ellipsis is probably most commonly found in the second clause after ‘and’ or ‘but’

Reduced relative clauses and reduced adverbial clauses are also often considered to be examples of ellipsis. With these, the missing words haven’t necessarily been mentioned, but they are clearly recoverable.

E.g. The dark-haired girl (who is) standing over there just smiled at you.

When (you are) teaching ellipsis, you need to find good examples.

Substitution

The easiest way to think about substitution is to consider it as a form of ellipsis. Something is missing, but instead of just leaving it out, we substitute it with another word, usually ‘so’, ‘one(s)’, ‘do(es)’, ‘did’. [Some people have a wider definition of substitution and include things I’d put under the heading of reference]

E.g. Replacing a noun (phrase):

What kind of cupcake would you like? A chocolate one, please.

E.g. Replacing a verb phrase:

I didn’t like the film, but everyone else did (liked the film)

Note that we use substitution for verbs in the simple present or simple past. For other tenses or modals, we use ellipsis.

I don’t want to go running but I really should (go running).

Have you ever been to Paris? Yes, I have (been to Paris)

How to teach ellipsis and substitution

As with a lot of things, the first step is to raise awareness of its existence. This is something which is often dealt with in ‘advanced’ level materials. This is fair enough in terms of getting students to produce natural sounding language but this shouldn’t be the first time students have ever thought about the concept. It needs to be something that students are aware of right from the beginning.

First of all, don’t routinely ask students to produce ‘full answers’.

‘Where do you live?’ ‘I live in Brixton.’

This may neatly practice present simple, but it sounds distinctly odd. Encourage ‘short answers’ and show students how much can be achieved with the right intonation. (See ‘Tea?’ above).

At low levels, it’s worth doing some activities to focus on short answers. (E.g. Yes, I do, No, I can’t.)

For example, you could use mini whiteboards and ask students questions which require short answers. They have to write the answer which is true for them and hold it up. The advantages of mini whiteboards include the fact that that they have more processing time, they have to think individually about the correct short answer, and you can see exactly who is producing an appropriate short answer.

Alternatively, you could do this in a circle with a beanbag- the person catching the bean bag has to answer, using a short answer.

A lot of fun can be had with really pared down dialogues. Perhaps the most famous example is ‘The train to Oxford.’ As you can probably tell by the reference to smoking and the slightly cheesy storyline, this is a golden oldie. Originally written by Scott Thornbury as a piece of teacher training material:

A: Um cigarette

B: Thanks

A: Oxford

B: Yes you

A: Um that’s right student

B: Nurse you

A: Unemployed

B: Long

A: A year er married

B: Divorced

A: Really me too

B: Kids

A: One you

B: Three

A: Erm dinner

B: When

A: Tonight

B: Ah busy tomorrow

A: Lunch

B: OK where

A: Um Browns

B: Browns

A: When

B: One

A: Fine Oh Oxford

B: Already

A: Tomorrow

B: Tomorrow

A: Oh

B: Yes

A: Name

B: Sarah

A: Andrew

This, and texts like this, are usually used to work on intonation, and they’re great for that. But ‘The Train to Oxford’ is also stuffed with examples of situational ellipsis and we can focus on this by getting students to first build up the dialogue into fuller expressions. This will, of course, also help with meaning, and thus intonation, when they go back to the pared down version.

Any authentic or even semi authentic recording is also likely to be a good source of examples of ellipsis. Take a look at this extract from my latest downloadable lesson plan, Q & A, (which also has a focus on ellipsis by the way)

J: Have you ever lied to me? 

S: I probably have [], but I try not to [] even if sometimes the questions you ask me make me uncomfortable.

In any listening based lesson, after some work on comprehension, you can pull out an extract like this and get students to complete what’s missing.  Slightly harder is to ask students to find places in a text where something has been ‘taken out’ or substituted.

Alternatively, why not reverse it, and ask students to try to cut down texts? You could add an element of competition by asking students to reduce the text to as few words as possible, while still retaining the same meaning.

Ellipsis and substitution also tend to come up as testable items in Use of English type exam papers. We often see multiple choice questions such as:

Susie doesn’t like coffee but I _____.

do
like
didn’t

I can’t play the piano but Jim _____.

does
is
can

Show students some examples of these (and give them some straightforward practice). Then ask them to write their own versions. These can be personalised, about themselves or classmates, or simply as silly as possible.

Once you start using some of these activities, you, and hopefully your students, will notice ellipsis and substitution everywhere!

12 Comments

Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Discourse, Grammar, Listening

12 responses to “Am I missing something?: raising awareness of ellipsis and substitution

  1. Pingback: Am I missing something?: raising awareness of ellipsis and substitution | David's ESOL Blog

  2. If anything, speakers of other languages such as Italian, Mandarin, Japanese or Korean make much more use of ellipsis than we do in English….Often in these languages subjects or entire propositions may be dropped when contextually recoverable, while in English subjects are typically overt (except after conjunctions with and/but). This means that learners from these L1s are typically underinformative at lower L2 English levels, leading to ambiguity. Interestingly, they become hypersensitive to obligatory subjects at higher L2 proficiency levels, and become over-explicit compared to native English speakers…This is something that is never really overcome in L2 English learners’ interlanguage, even at near-native proficiencies.

  3. Wow. Thanks for taking the time to lay this out in such detail! Have you seen “One Word Dialogues” in Maley & Duff’s Drama techniques in Language Learning? The Thornbury piece brought it to mind. The dialogues are VERY short (4 or 5 one-word exchanges), and allow the students to imagine their own context and build in a before and after. Seems like there’d be some fun in those two, for focusing awareness on what’s missing.

    Thanks for this — I’ll pass it around.

  4. drcrosthwaite

    If anything, speakers of other languages such as Italian, Mandarin, Japanese or Korean make much more use of ellipsis than we do in English….Often in these languages subjects or entire propositions may be dropped when contextually recoverable, while in English subjects are typically overt (except after conjunctions with and/but). This means that learners from these L1s are typically underinformative at lower L2 English levels, leading to ambiguity. Interestingly, they become hypersensitive to obligatory subjects at higher L2 proficiency levels, and become over-explicit compared to native English speakers…This is something that is never really overcome in L2 English learners’ interlanguage, even at near-native proficiencies.

  5. Thank you for such an elaborate explanation. I haven’t come across something similar in one place before. I teach pre-intermediate and intermediate level students and we deal with some examples of ellipsis and substitution, such as short answers, the use of indefinite pronouns ‘one/ones’ to avoid repetition, omission of a relative pronoun and replacing a verb phrase.
    As for your ideas of possible ways to teach and practise them, I particularly like the idea of cutting down texts. It sounds like fun. I will try it. 🙂

    • Thanks very much for your comment. I hadn’t found much either, which is partly why I decided to write it. At the moment I’m tutoring on the Distance DELTA, and thought it might be particularly helpful for that, but we’re all glad to get a few new ideas I think. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Am I missing something?: raising awareness of e...

  7. micheleskimateach

    Reblogged this on My Virtual English and commented:
    Teacher’s! Here is an excellent article explaining ellipsis and substitution in English. Keep watching for my “Did I Forget to Mention…? post on this topic, coming soon!

  8. KRJ

    One of the greatest problem in comprehension / expression for students of a foreign language is that they are often taught to speak as the grammar they learn and thus expect that native speakers will do the same.

    My spoken French (and my understanding of that language) only improved (or sounded more natural) after I learned the actual structures used when native speakers talk. They can be very different from the grammar I learned but, come to think of it, why should they not be ? It is the same in English and I suppose in any other language.

    So I should think language schools should put more emphasis on conversational language patterns to get the students to actually use the language they are being taught

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