Did I Forget to Mention…Ellipsis?

Many English language learners confess that they have a hard time “catching all the words” when they listen to spoken English. If reading that sentence made you think, “Yeah! I know how they feel!,” then I have some good news for you!  Your listening skills may be a whole lot better than you realized.

Your teachers may have forgotten to mention a phenomenon called ellipsis. Ellipsis occurs when parts of sentences, phrases,  or words are dropped (not used) because their meaning is understood.

Here is an example of a conversation that could occur in any kitchen in the US:

Coffee in New York City

“Morning! Sleep well?”

“Okay.  You?”

“Umm hmm. Pretty good.   Coffee?”


“Cream or sugar?”

“No. Just black.”

To understand ellipsis, you need to know that English speakers emphasize certain words in every phrase.  Understanding this concept goes beyond understanding ellipsis, it is the key to mastering English. If you have never studied sentence stress before, or if the difference between content words and function words is unclear to you, please click here to go to the English Club site  before reading further.

As a refresher* then, CONTENT words carry the meaning of a message, and FUNCTION words provide the structure.

Let’s look at our kitchen conversation again.  This time, I’ve added the missing words and all the content words are written in All CAPS.*

“good MORNING! did you SLEEP WELL?”

“i slept OKAY. did  YOU sleep well?”

“UMM HMM.* i slept PRETTY GOOD.  can I GET you a CUP of COFFEE?”

“yes PLEASE get me a cup of coffee!”                                

“do you use CREAM or SUGAR in your coffee?”

 “no. i JUST drink BLACK coffee.”

Read the conversation aloud, making sure to emphasize the CONTENT words with higher pitch and volume (pauses and lengthening sounds can also add emphasis).  The rhythm of English sounds like car tires on a bumpy road.  For example the rhythm of the first line can be written like this: ba BUPba! ba ba BUP BUP?

Now, read the conversation again, except just read the CONTENT words.  Cool, huh?! Notice the similarities between the two conversations?  It should becoming clear why understanding spoken English is about listening for and using STRESS.

In the slide presentation below (developed by Ana Enriquez Sanchez), slides 2-11 give examples of the concept of substitution.  Slides 12-16 explain the grammar rules for ellipsis.


Michele MVE 02 Icon 80 Percent JPEGMy Take On It

Language learning is interactive.  To learn a language you have to practice speaking it.  Start by doing the listening and speaking exercises here at About.Com.  Then find a master English speaker to practice with. There are lots of language exchange sites (just Google “practice English with native speakers”), and professional tutors. I use SkimaTalk.com as my teaching platform.

Now we’re talking!* (This expression is used to express pleasure or acknowledge an improvement).  Happy learning!, Michele

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4 thoughts on “Did I Forget to Mention…Ellipsis?

  1. Perhaps you’ve received a widely circulated email that begins with this nonsensical sentence:

    I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.

    What is this called?

    1. My first reaction was to answer, “Jibberish!” (That single word answer is a good example of ellipsis!) But, considering that Guy is my father I decided to give his question a little more consideration! (Love you, Dad!) There is an interesting article on this very topic at the Grammarly Blog http://www.grammarly.com/blog/2013/decade-misunderstanding/
      The author explains that the reason we can “translate” that sentence to “I couldn’t believe that I could actually understand what I was reading,” is due to the amazing power of the human brain! She explains that we don’t read letter by letter. We see patterns in text and because the sentence structure is preserved, we are able to decode even the most horrific misspellings.
      Good question! Thanks! Michele

      1. Thank you Michele. I’ve learned something new today. Who would have thought that you could teach “an old dog new tricks”!

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