Staff Member Projects

Ellipsis Licensing Beyond Syntax

Lisa Lai-Shen Cheng

(together with Anikó Lipták)

[funded by NWO]

Ellipsis is a frequently used sentence-shortening device. It allows us to leave out material that is evident from the (linguistic) context. Even though the elliptical material is not pronounced, elliptical sentences are not perceived as incomplete. The following sentence, with ellipsis represented with strikethrough, can only be interpreted as containing the predicate understand ellipsis.

(1) John has understood ellipsis. Others have understood ellipsis, too.

Thanks to a large body of previous work, we now know of the use of ellipsis in many languages and in many contexts, and we can identify the various types of ellipsis (nominal ellipsis, predicate ellipsis, clausal ellipsis) with great certainty. However, we do not yet know why ellipsis can occur in certain places in the sentence but not in others: why there is variation in the positions where elliptical gaps in a sentence can be encountered within a language (compare the grammatical (1) with the ungrammatical (2)) and across languages (compare the grammatical English (1) and the ungrammatical Dutch (3)).

(2) I wonder if you have understood ellipsis. *Have you understood ellipsis?

(3) Jan heeft ellipsis begrepen. *Ook andere hebben ellipsis begrepen.

The fact that ellipsis cannot just occur anywhere is related to the idea of licensing: ellipsis is only possible in certain configurations in which it is licensed by particular syntactic material. The syntactic theory of licensing however has great limitations and cannot predict the intra- and inter-language differences that are found. This lacuna results from the concentration of work in the syntactic component, even though it is well-known that ellipsis is a phenomenon that concerns all modules interfacing with the syntactic component: (i) the articulatory module, responsible for pronouncing elliptical sentences; and (ii) the morphological component, responsible for forming the words in elliptical sentences. For this reason, it is expected that ellipsis is constrained (in other words licensed) by prosodic and morphological regularities of languages as well.

The project proposes an integrated and comparative study on the syntactic, morphological and prosodic aspects of ellipsis to arrive at an integrated theory of ellipsis licensing.