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Tacit Misunderstandings: Problems
of Ellipsis for Beginning and
Intermediate ESL Learners
by Ronald D. Klein

- 1


For native speakers of English our language is dynamic, fluid and elastic. We have a lifetime of familiarity and know what we can do with it. We can speak it in different registers from formal to slang; we can incorporate our cultural references from prehistoric history to last night's television show; we can play with it in rhyme, pun and double entendre; we can stretch it in poetic metaphors; we can decode its tonal inflections and locutionary acts; we can have confidence in our pragmatic appropriateness; we can discern the affect of interjections; and we tacitly understand when words are left out.

These are all advantages to native speakers of any language. The road to acquiring a second language covers much the same territory as primary language learning, however usually at a later stage of life, more accelerated and without the daily social/cultural/parental reinforcements. L2 learning is more formalistic, rote and repetitive, and as such, more limited. The requirement for learning basic grammar and vocabulary preceeds the need for nuances and niceties of sociolinguistics or pragmatics.

One aspect of language, rarely taught in textbooks, yet widely used in discourse, is the condensation of full grammatical sentences. In its more formal linguistic identity, this is sometimes called ellipsis, sometimes deletions, sometimes omissions. Yet there are other forms of consensations, truncations and incomplete sentences, which are very much a part of the everyday use of language. These include simple formulae (Nice day!), aphorisms (Long time, no see), instructions (Open other end), headlines (UN: Rich, Poor Divide Widening) and simple truncations (Anything wrong?).

Native speakers tacitly understand the meaning of these incomplete sentences. They do not need to be told what is missing. Rarely do they need to ask for clarification of missing subjects, predicates, objects, infinitives, prepositions, relative conjunctions, pronoun referents, pro-verbs, etc. There is a tacit understanding of the antecedent referents, either preceeding the sentence or within the head sentence. There is enough familiarity of the base sentence to allow the native speaker to drop words that non-native speakers often needs in order to complete their understanding.

Because these dropped words are tacitly understood by native speakers and because they go beyond the formal structure of ellipsis or deletion, I would like to call the total group of omitted words tacits. For the purpose of this paper then, tacits will refer to the whole body of examples where words are linguistically or grammatically missing.

The prevalence of tacits in English can create problems for ESL learners, especially those in Japan. In Japan, like in many other countries, English is taught universally in all secondary schools from 7th-12th grade. However, one problem in learning English is the obsession with teaching grammar. Japanese students have exposure to very sophisticated grammatical constructions, mastery of which is a requirement for the mandatory English test of all university entrance examinations. Yet despite the Ministry of Education's attempt to put native speakers in the classroom, Japanese learners simply do not have enough chance to hear and speak English. The tendency toward word by word translation creates problems for beginner listeners and word encoding readers in understanding the meaning of sentences where words are omitted. These omissions lead learners into linguistic dead ends and confusion.

This paper has three sections. The first one demonstrates that the existence of tacits is more widespread than usually acknowledged. A taxonomy will be introduced showing the variety of forms and uses of omitted words. The second section will show that the acquisition of tacit understandings is indeed a problem for intermediate learners of English. A short questionnaire of sample examples of tacits was given to both intermediate and advanced learners of English. The results show that while freshman college students were generally at a loss to supply the missing words, more advanced learners could supply them. As a result of demonstrating the problem this poses, the final section will discuss possible approaches to teaching tacits.

What are tacits?

In their Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Quirk et. al. devote a section to "sentence types and discourse functions." (801-853) Besides exclamations and echoes, one type is "irregular sentences," including wh-questions, aphorisms, block language, instructional writing and informal conversation. Another type is the "nonsentence" which includes formulae and interjections. All these are commonly used in spoken language and such discourse functions often break the formalistic rules of grammar, especially as taught in textbooks. For Quirk, these irregular and nonsentences are yet separate from the additional list of pro-forms and elliptical forms of what he calls "grammatical omission" (883). Basically, Quirk classifies ellipsis into recoverable, functional and formal types, emphasizing omissions that are recoverable, grammatically defective and referential. He acknowledges the close relationship between these ellipses and other pro-form substitutions and the difficulty of distinguishing between the two. Adding to the confusion, he also describes quasi-ellipsis and virtual ellipsis, in which words are omitted, substituted or combined.

Another standard text used for teaching grammar for ESL is The Grammar Book (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman). As useful as it is for teaching grammar, surprisingly it does not contain the same categories of omission as Quirk and, in fact, only lists elliptical forms of wh-questions and yes-no questions (640). However, the concept of tacits is found throughout the text in examples of "deletions" which are not combined in any organized discussion. In fact, Celce-Murcia's examples of deletions cover different aspects of grammar than do Quirk's ellipsis.

Other recent texts on syntax, semantics and applied linguistics give very little, if any, attention to either ellipsis or deletions. For example, McCarthy discusses "situational ellipsis" in only two pages of Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics but Leach, Levi, Radford and Baker give ellipsis little attention in their discussions of grammar.

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