Verb phrase ellipsis

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In linguistics, verb phrase ellipsis (VP-ellipsis or VPE) is an elliptical construction in which a non-finite verb phrase has been left out (elided), e.g. She will sell sea shells, and he will sell sea shells too. VP-ellipsis is a well-studied kind of ellipsis,[1] particularly with regard to its occurrence in English,[2] although certain types can be found in other languages as well.[3]

Features of verb phrase ellipsis in English

In the types of VP-ellipsis considered here, which are features of English grammar, the elided VP must be a non-finite VP; it cannot be a finite VP. Further, the ellipsis must be introduced by an auxiliary verb (be, can, do, don't, could, have, may, might, shall, should, will, won't, would, etc.) or by the infinitive particle to.[4] In the examples below, the elided material of VP-ellipsis is indicated using subscripts and a smaller font and the antecedent to the ellipsis is bolded:

You might do it, but I won't do it.
She won't laugh, but he will laugh.
Susan has been cheating, and Fred has been cheating too.
Larry is not telling the truth, neither is Jim telling the truth.

Attempts at VP-ellipsis that lack an auxiliary verb fail, unless the infinitive particle to is retained:

a. *Sam wants to eat, and Fred wants to eat as well. (* indicates that the sentence is ungrammatical)
b. Sam wants to eat, and Fred wants to eat as well.
a. *Josh likes to sleep late, and Hillary likes to sleep late as well.
b. Josh likes to sleep late, and Hillary likes to sleep late as well.

Apparent exceptions to this restriction on VP-ellipsis may be instances of null complement anaphora, e.g. ?Bill tried to leave, and Jim tried to leave too.

A particularly frequent construction in which VP-ellipsis (obligatorily) occurs is the tag question:

Jeremy likes beer, doesn't he like beer? - Tag question involves VP-ellipsis
Susan will write the paper, won't she write the paper? - Tag question involves VP-ellipsis

The direction of ellipsis

VP-ellipsis can be said to operate either forwards or backwards: it operates forwards when the antecedent to the ellipsis precedes the ellipsis (as in the above examples) and backwards when the antecedent follows the ellipsis. It can also be said to operate either upwards or downwards (or neither). It operates upwards when the antecedent appears in a clause that is subordinate to the clause containing the ellipsis, and downwards when the ellipsis appears in a clause subordinate to the clause containing the antecedent. In the above examples, the two clauses are coordinated, so neither is subordinate to the other, and hence the operation of the ellipsis is neither upward nor downward.

Combinations of these directions of operation of ellipsis are illustrated with the following examples:

The people who say they will help never do help. - Forwards and upwards
The people who say they will help never do help. - Backwards and downwards
The people never do help, who say they will help. - Forwards and downwards
*The people never do help, who say they will help. - Backwards and upwards

Three of the four combinations are acceptable. However, as the fourth example shows, VP-ellipsis is impossible when it operates both backwards and upwards.

Antecedent-contained ellipsis

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An aspect of VP-ellipsis that has been the subject of much theoretical analysis occurs when the ellipsis appears to be contained inside its antecedent. The phenomenon is called antecedent-contained ellipsis or antecedent-contained deletion. Canonical cases of antecedent-contained ellipsis occur when the ellipsis appears inside a quantified object NP, e.g.

They said everything that we did say.
He is thinking the same thing I am thinking.

If it is assumed that the antecedent to the ellipsis is to be a complete verb phrase, then the only possible antecedent appears to be the VP in bold. This VP, however, contains the ellipsis itself. This analysis would imply an infinite regress, which is an impossibility, since it would mean that the ellipsis could never acquire full semantic content.

One means of addressing antecedent-contained ellipsis that is pursued in some phrase structure grammars is to assume quantifier raising (QR).[5] Quantifier raising raises the quantified NP to a position where it is no longer contained inside its antecedent VP. An alternative explanation, pursued in dependency grammars, is to assume that the basic unit of syntax is not the constituent, but rather the catena.[6] On this analysis, the antecedent to the ellipsis does not need to be a complete constituent (an entire verb phrase), but can be merely a catena (the verbs say and thinking in the above examples), which need not contain the ellipsis.

Argument contained ellipsis

As noted above, VP-ellipsis is generally impossible if it would operate both backwards and upwards. There are also certain other restrictions on the possibility of ellipsis, although a complete theoretical analysis may be lacking. Two examples of environments in which ellipsis fails are now given:[7]

*A proof that God exists does exist. - Failed upward ellipsis
*A proof that God does exist exists. - Failed argument-contained ellipsis

The inability of VP-ellipsis to occur in these cases has been explored in terms of so-called argument contained ellipsis.[8] The ellipsis appears inside an argument of the predicate represented by the antecedent to the ellipsis. A satisfactory account of the inability of VP-ellipsis to occur in these sentences is lacking.

See also

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  1. Prominent explorations of VP-ellipsis are, for instance, those of Hankamer and Sag (1976), Hardt (1993), and Johnson (2001).
  2. An extensive corpus study is found in Bos and Spenader (2011).
  3. See Goldberg (2005) for a sustained argument that verb phrase ellipsis is also found in certain verb-raising languages.
  4. See Kroeger (2004:35) concerning the necessity that an auxiliary verb be "left behind" in order to license VP-ellipsis.
  5. For accounts of antecedent contained deletion in terms of quantifier raising, see for instance Kennedy (1997) and Wilder (2003).
  6. Concerning the status of the catena as the basic unit of syntactic analysis, see Osborne and Groß 2012.
  7. The two examples illustrating argument contained ellipsis were originally from Wasow 1972.
  8. Argument contained ellipsis is explored in detail by Kennedy (1994).


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  • Bos, J. and J. Spenader (2011). An annotated corpus for the analysis of VP ellipsis. Language Resource and Evaluation 45(4): 463-494
  • Goldberg, L. 2005. Verb-stranding VP ellipsis: A cross-linguistic study. Doctoral Dissertation, McGill University, Montreal.
  • Hankamer, J. and I. Sag 1976. Deep and surface anaphora. Linguistic Inquiry 7, 391–428.
  • Hardt, D. 1993. Verb phrase ellipsis: Form, meaning and processing. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Johnson, K. 2001. What VP ellipsis can do, and what it can’t, but not why. In The handbook of contemporary syntactic theory, ed. Mark Baltin, M. and C. Collins, 439–479. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Kennedy, C. 1994. Argument contained ellipsis. Linguistics Research Center Report LRC-94-03. University of California, Santa Cruz.
  • Kennedy, C. 1997. Antecedent-contained deletion and the syntax of quantification. Linguistic Inquiry 28/4, 662-688.
  • Kroeger, P. 2004. Analyzing syntax: A lexical-functional approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Osborne, T. and T. Groß 2012. Constructions are catenae: Construction Grammar meets Dependency Grammar. Cognitive Linguistics 23, 1, 163-214.
  • Wasow, T. 1972. Anaphoric relations in English. Doctoral dissertation, MIT, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Wilder, C. 2003. Antecedent containment and ellipsis. In The interfaces: Deriving and interpreting omitted structures, ed. by K. Schwabe and S. Winkler, 79-119. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.