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.
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.
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: Yes you
A: Um that’s right student
B: Nurse you
A: A year er married
A: Really me too
A: One you
A: Erm dinner
B: Ah busy tomorrow
B: OK where
A: Um Browns
A: Fine Oh Oxford
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 _____.
I can’t play the piano but Jim _____.
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!