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ellipsis (grammar and rhetoric)


ellipsis (grammar and rhetoric)

Henri Estienne's elliptical proverb


In grammar and rhetoric, the omission of one or more words, which must be supplied by the listener or reader. Adjective: elliptical or elliptic. Plural, ellipses.

For information and examples related to the mark of punctuation (. . .), see Ellipsis Points (Punctuation).

In her book Developing a Written Voice (1993), Dona Hickey notes that ellipsis encourages readers to "supply what isn't there by stressing heavily what is." See Examples and Observations, below.

See also:


From the Greek, "to leave out" or "fall short"

Examples and Observations:

  • "The streets were deserted, the doors bolted."
    (Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco, 1965)

  • "His brow was furrowed, his mouth peevish."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Leave It to Psmith, 1923)

  • "Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something."

  • "Prosperity is a great teacher; adversity a greater."
    (William Hazlitt)

  • "In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness."
    (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)

  • "Her eyes are sunk and reverting to liquid, her gait is stooped, her upper lip crowned with a moustache of close to squadron-leader density."
    (Joe Bennett, Mustn't Grumble: In Search of England and the English. Simon & Schuster UK, 2006)

  • "Her hair was silver-tipped, her eyes large and bright."
    (Muriel Spark, The Takeover, 1976)

  • "Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends."
    (Virginia Woolf)

  • "Vanessa had to leave her children and come running, nurses had to be hired, rest homes interviewed, transport accomplished."
    (Cynthia Ozick, "Mrs. Virginia Woolf: A Madwoman and Her Nurse")

  • "When well used, ellipsis can create a bond of sorts between the writer and the reader. The writer is saying, in effect, I needn't spell everything out for you; I know you'll understand."
    (Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar, 5th ed. Pearson, 2007)

  • "Later, it does not surprise me to find myself in Miss Mey's shiny black car, sharing the back seat with the other lucky ones. Does not surprise me that I thoroughly enjoy the fair."
    (Alice Walker, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self," 1983)

  • "There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them."
    (Virginia Woolf)

  • "True stories deal with hunger, imaginary ones with love."
    (Raymond Queneau)

  • Using Ellipsis Effectively
    "Ellipsis can be an artful and arresting means of securing economy of expression. We must see to it, however, that the understood words are grammatically compatible. If we wrote, 'The ringleader was hanged, and his accomplices imprisoned,' we would be guilty of a solecism, because the understood was is not grammatically compatible with the plural subject (accomplices) of the second clause."
    (Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999)

    "The potential for unintended humor in 'compressed' English isn’t restricted to headline writing; it goes back to the days of the telegraph. One clever (though possibly apocryphal) example once appeared in the pages of Time magazine: Cary Grant received a telegram from an editor inquiring, 'HOW OLD CARY GRANT?'--to which he responded: 'OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?' The omitted verb may have saved the sender a nickel, but the snappy comeback was worth far more."
    (Ben Zimmer, "Crash Blossoms." The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2010)

Ellipsis in Films

"Leaving out a character's face from the frame [in a scene in a film] is a special case of ellipsis with many applications.

"When the real Hitler arrives for a gala theater night in Warsaw, Ernst Lubitsch never shows his face. We see only his back from his arrival outside to his walking into his theater box, his arm raised in salute, and the standing audience below, or now and then a very long shot. This prevents a minor character from gaining undue weight, as such a historical personage would (To Be or Not to Be)."
(N. Roy Clifton, The Figure in Film. Associated University Presses, 1983)

Pronunciation: ee-LIP-sis
Also Known As: elliptical expression, elliptical clause

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