Last month (July 2016) I was in Manchester, training on my Video and Image in Language Teaching course (VILT) for NILE. One of the activities that I gave participants was to take photographs of interesting texts that they saw in the city’s streets and public areas. Here is my own offering – a selection of questions which all contain ellipsis (missing words). If you would prefer create a slideshow for your students (rather than use the video) you can access my photographs here.
- Language level: A2 +
- Learner type: Teens; Adults
- Time: 25 minutes
- Activity: Grammar activity
- Topic: Linguistic landscape
- Language: Question forms
- Materials: Video + worksheet
In linguistics, ellipsis refers to omitting words from a sentence, question or phrase. The idea is that the missing words are not necessary for comprehension. There are many different types of ellipsis and many situations in which you can observe it. For example, in the following sentence, there is an incomplete verb phrase:
I would if I could, but I can’t so I won’t.
This is not a problem. Context will inform the listener(s) or readers(s) what the complete verb phrase is. For example:
I would help him if I could, but I can’t so I won’t.
But even here, there has to be ellipsis. If not, the sentence would read as:
I would help him if I could help him, but I can’t help him so I won’t help him.
That is just one example of ellipsis. Different types of ellipsis can be observed in different situations. And recently, I became aware of how common it is to see ellipsis in questions in posters, adverts and flyers in public areas.
Do youWant a better broadband deal? Do youLove nature? Are youGoing up?
Some things to point out:
- Register: We are usually dealing with informal, friendly messages or calls for attention.
- Grammar: In these cases, auxiliaries and subject pronouns are the most commonly omitted words. And we are usually dealing with closed questions (questions that can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’). But that isn’t always the case (e.g. ‘Who ya gonna call?’)
- Spoken written: Perhaps the creators of these adverts, posters and slogans are attempting to capture English as it is spoken. Listen carefully and you will hear that it is very common for people to use ellipsis in questions (e.g. “You got kids of your own?”)
- Language students: Although students of English are generally required to produce full questions for examination purposes, I think that there is a lot to be gained by looking at English as it exists in the wild. In this activity, students work with a number of street questions and have to identify the missing words (i.e. the ellipsis).
The PDF download (see above) contains a grammar activity in which students have to predict the context of each street question before the see the image. They also have to consider what the missing words could be in each case. I hope you / your students enjoy it.