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Review of  A Theory of Ellipsis

Reviewer: Ruixi Ressy Ai
Book Title: A Theory of Ellipsis
Book Author: Marjorie Joan McShane
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 16.2485

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Date: Tue, 23 Aug 2005 21:01:51 -0400
From: Ruixi Ressy Ai <>
Subject: A Theory of Ellipsis

AUTHOR: McShane, Marjorie J.
TITLE: A Theory of Ellipsis
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005

Ruixi Ressy Ai, Department of Linguistics, Harvard University


In this volume, McShane develops a theory of ellipsis that is quite
holistic. Unlike traditional approach, which tackles only one aspect of
ellipsis, e.g., with reference either to syntax, semantics, discourse,
lexical semantics, prosody or stylistics, McShane deals with them all. The
approach is captured under extensible parameters-and-values. For
parameters, they range over syntax, lexical semantics, morphology,
pragmatics, stylistics and many others. The values for these parameters
are usually of multi-valance. Take the direct object ellipsis with a like
antecedent for example. One of the parameters that are related to syntax
of this kind of construction can be represented as syntactic structure.
The values for this parameter can be:
(a) VP coordination;
(b) Clausal coordination (the verbs have different subjects);
(c) A clause and its elaboration;
(d) Main clause and gerund phrase and
(e) Main clause and subordinate clause.

As we can see from this example, the parameter is quite descriptive in
nature and the values are intended to exhaust all the possibilities that
the parameter can predict. This parameter, combined with many others that
may or may not be in the domain of syntax, e.g., in the domain of
morphology, semantics, pragmatics, discourse, stylistics and so on, can
not only describe what is elided but also predict what can be (sometimes,
has to) be elided. Based on all these parameters and values, we can start
from one parameter, follow its value setting and reach (possibly) another
parameter. Following the value setting of that parameter, we can possibly
reach yet another parameter. If we repeat this cycle, we can gradually
reach the conclusion that co-reference between the ellipsis under
investigation and some kinds of antecedents can be of high or low
probability, thus resolving ellipsis. This whole process can be developed
into a kind of algorithm, with great potentials to become a real computer
program that can detect, interpret and generate elliptical utterances.

The focus of this book, however, is not on developing these real computer
programs. Instead, it focuses on describing linguistic facts, followed by
suggested algorithms for computational linguists or computer experts. As
the author defines, if 'one had to name the field to which this work
belongs, it might best be called descriptive computational linguistics'

The ellipsis that this book covers includes: (a) syntactic ellipsis; (b)
semantic ellipsis and (c) morphological ellipsis. The discussion of all
these elliptical phenomena is dispersed into 13 chapters, which make up
the whole book. The main target language in this book is Russian, followed
by (usu. a comparison with) Polish, Czech and English.

Chapter 1 Getting Started
This is the cornerstone of the whole book. Instead of detailed data
description, this chapter focuses on the more theoretical (sometimes
philosophical) discussions. The main topics discussed in this chapter
(a) What is a linguistic theory;
(b) Why do we need a new linguistic theory for ellipsis;
(c) How can we build a holistic linguistic theory for ellipsis that can
cut across language modules (i.e., across syntax, semantics, pragmatics,
(d) What is the methodology employed in developing such a theory; and
(e) How do we evaluate such a theory eventually?

It is based on these discussions that a theory of parameters-and-values
emerges. Under this theory, parameters, with their entailed values, are
drawn from various language modules (e.g., syntax, semantics, morphology,
discourse, pragmatics, etc.). More significantly, these parameters (with
their relevant values) can interact with each other, regardless of their
background (i.e., from which language module they are drawn). It is this
interaction among parameters across language modules that makes this
theory for ellipsis holistic. It is also based on this approach that all
the elliptical data will be described in later chapters.

This chapter also differentiates two types of ellipsis:
(a) syntactic ellipsis and
(b) semantic ellipsis (e.g., 'I like reading Tolstoy' = 'I like reading
[books written by] Tolstoy', which is not a possible utterance in

The latter is of great significance to NLP, though it is less studied in
literature. A preliminary (yet quite complete) inventory of all elliptical
phenomena is also provided in this chapter (p.6-7).

Chapter 2 Object Ellipsis: Preliminaries
This is the prelude for the next five chapters which deal exclusively with
object ellipsis. This is of great significance because compared with
subject and verb ellipsis, object ellipsis is not widely discussed in
literature. McShane argues that the study of object ellipsis should be
related to case marking. Take Russian for example, all three kinds of case
assignments (i.e., configurational, lexical and semantic) are all involved
in assigning case to the object. Thus, the case parameter for object
ellipsis should include various cases like:
(a) accusative;
(b) genitive;
(c) instrumental;
(d) dative and
(e) prepositional.

These various case-bearing null objects can be related to various
antecedents that may or may not bear the same case with the relevant null
object. Exactly how the null object establishes the co-reference
relationship with their possible antecedents under the case cue is of
primary concern for the next five chapters.

Chapter 3 Direct Object Ellipsis with a Like Antecedent
This chapter considers Direct Object (DO) ellipsis with a DO antecedent.
In terms of case morphology, both the elided object and its antecedent
bear accusative case (ACC). The licensing condition for the DO ellipsis
with a DO antecedent, however, is not restricted to the case morphology
alone. Instead, it is combined with syntactic, lexico-semantic and
pragmatic factors. Thus, the parameters with their entailed values will be
drawn from all these domains. An example of the parameter from the
syntactic domain is provided at the beginning of this synopsis. An example
of the parameter from the lexico-semantic domain would be something like
the nature of the selectional restrictions of the verbs in the ellipsis
clause, with its values set as being typical or being narrow. The
pragmatic parameter would include something like stylistic force with its
values set as being neutral or emphatic. All these possible parameters and
values are discussed in detail with abundant data from Russian. Polish and
Czech are also compared with Russian to validate this initial inventory of
parameters and values. It is shown that these parameters and values can be
extensible whenever something that has not been considered has turned up.
In other words, in McShane's theory, new parameters and values across
language modules can always be added. The theory is thus expandable by
itself. Some sample processing algorithms are also provided, showing how
the description derived from a theory like this can be applied in
practice. All the algorithms designed are trying to resolve the co-
reference between the DO ellipsis and its possible antecedents. The larger
resolution of reference is excluded from these algorithms.

Chapter 4 Direct Object Ellipsis with a Nominative Antecedent
In this chapter, the DO ellipsis (in ACC) is associated with a nominative
(NOM) antecedent, which can be either a nominative subject or an
independent nominative topic - this by itself can be a parameter with its
values in resolving the co-reference between the DO ellipsis with a NOM
antecedent. Other parameters include the nature of the selecting verbs,
the syntactic relation between clauses and how the topic is presented. A
cross-linguistic comparison with Czech and Polish, together with a sample
algorithm, is also provided.

Chapter 5 Direct Object Ellipsis with an Oblique Antecedent
In this chapter, the potentially elided category is a DO with
configurational ACC case marking. The antecedent is a syntactically
accessible object with oblique case marking. This includes: (a)
complements of verbs with genitive (GEN), dative (DAT) or instrumental
(INSTR) case marking and (b) complements of prepositions with GEN, DAT,
INSTR, prepositional (PREP) or (loosely) ACC case marking. Other
parameters that might promote ellipsis include:
(a) R-expression versus pronominal antecedent (pronoun antecedents seem to
incur ellipsis more readily);
(b) the nature of the clause complex;
(c) narrow selectional restrictions of the ellipsis-clause verb;
(d) adverbs;
(e) the Assertion (A) and Elaboration (E) strategy;
(f) common semantic or pragmatic context and
(g) rhythm, prosody.

The interaction among these factors seems to be too complex and too
general to produce any predictive algorithms at the moment.

Chapter 6 Elided Lexically Case-Marked Objects
Lexically case-marked objects, which can bear GEN, INSTR, and DAT case
marking in Russian can be elided in verbal repetition structures, If the
verb in the antecedent clause and that in the ellipsis clause are not
identical, it seems that only the (lexically case-marked) Datives can
undergo ellipsis. While (lexically cased-marked) GEN and INSTR will be
ambiguous between ellipsis and unexpressed objects. An algorithm to
determine the co-reference between the elided lexically case-marked object
and its antecedent seems to be possible and it is provided in this chapter

Chapter 7 Unexpressed Objects That Do Not or May Not Represent Syntactic
Missing objects can be due to:
(a) syntactic ellipsis;
(b) the non-selection of optional objects;
(c) object non-expression triggered by modality;
(d) the non-expression of generalized-human referents; and
(e) the non-expression of objects in series.

These five factors (or five nodes in a broad plane) can radiate and
borders among them are not that clear. Since this involves both syntactic
and semantic ellipsis, not only co-reference resolution algorithms, but
also reference resolution algorithms - that is, to specify 'the
generalized or specific object that people understand to be referred to in
all such contexts' (p.127), should be developed.

Chapter 8 Head Noun Ellipsis ... or Not?
Russian is significantly different from English in that adjectives in
Russian can be:
(a) real adjectives that can license head noun ellipsis. This is not
possible in English and instead of head noun ellipsis, one-substitution is
usually employed, which is an instance of semantic ellipsis since 'one(s)
must be linked to a real-world referent for a full semantic
representation' (p.128);
(b) diachronically substantivized adjectives (deadjectival nominals) that
function as full-fledged nouns.

In the latter case, no ellipsis is involved.

Chapter 9 Verbal Ellipsis with One Licensor
Four types of verbal ellipsis are discussed in this chapter:
(a) Gapping;
(b) Stripping;
(c) Sluicing; and
(d) Verb Phrase Ellipsis.

Only (a) is of great significance. Compared with Gapping in English,
Gapping in Russian shows the following differences:
(a) it is stylistically unrestricted;
(b) morphologically realized case marking in Russian expands Gapping
potential; and
(c) Gapping in Russian can be conjunctionless.

Only one of two basic strategies is involved in the aforementioned four
types of verbal ellipsis: either interclause parallelism ((a) and (b)) or
a lexical licensor (a wh-element for (c) and an auxiliary for (d)).

Chapter 10 Verb Ellipsis with a Combination of Licensors
Multilicensor Verbal Ellipsis (Multi-VE) is quite productive in Russian
(limited in Polish and Czech). It refers to the verb ellipsis which is
licensed by the combined semantics of the overt categories (NP argument;
NP adverbial; Impersonal predicate; etc.). It is the combined semantics of
these overt categories, sometimes with the help of the context that ensure
the recoverability of the relevant (elided) verb meaning. Orienting the
description in this domain towards processing is highly possible and

Chapter 11 Ellipsis of Minor Parts of Speech
This chapter describes the ellipsis of some minor parts of speech. This
(a) ellipsis of conjunctions and relative pronouns;
(b) ellipsis of prepositions;
(c) ellipsis of conditional particles; and
(d) ellipsis of reciprocal and reflexive particles.

Chapter 12 Dependencies in Ellipsis: A Polish Case Study
This chapter presents a clear example of dependencies in ellipsis (i.e.,
the interdependence among overt and elided categories). Three elidable
categories in Polish: the multifunctional particle 'sie', the conditional
particle or morpheme 'by'/'-by' and direct objects with default ACC case
marking, are included in the discussion.

Chapter 13 More Elliptical Phenomena
The last chapter discusses:
(a) syntactic ellipsis with or without co-reference;
(b) semantic ellipsis;
(c) unexpressed morphemes; and
(d) language strategies (which is used in determining special processing
algorithm for that language).

Under these discussions, the resolution of ellipsis under co-reference
(which is the focus for most of the book) is now brought into the larger
framework of reference resolution (i.e., linking to real-world referent).


This book has made a great contribution to the theoretical and
computational study of ellipsis. First of all, the parameters-and-values
approach has provided us with a bird's view towards the description of the
licensing condition for ellipsis - instead of a (more traditional) worm's
one. As far as I know, this is the first time that the holistic view
towards the licensing condition of ellipsis has been developed into a
serious linguistic theory.

Second, the parameters-and-values approach does not only give rise to a
new theory for ellipsis, but also provide us with a methodology for
describing ellipsis. As mentioned in the synopsis (under chapter 3), the
theory is self-extensible. Thus, future work on ellipsis can be easily
accommodated into this framework. The only thing we have to do is to keep
on adding parameters and its entailed values into this system. In this
sense, this system of parameters-and-values is dynamic in nature.

Third, the sample algorithms has provided computational linguists and
computer experts a huge temptation to make them into real computer
programs. This is a great contribution to NLP in terms of (co-)reference

Fourth, the book has provided a detailed inventory for ellipsis that can
be hardly found anywhere else in ellipsis literature.
Fifth, the book is equipped with the richest examples of the relevant
phenomena that I have ever seen. All in all, the book will be of great
benefit to theoretical linguists, computational linguists,
field/descriptive linguists and anyone who is interested in ellipsis in
Slavic languages.

I have three further comments concerning the book. First, object ellipsis
has been discussed extensively in the book (6 chapters in total). This is
reasonable since this is not extensively discussed in literature, compared
with the study of subject and verb ellipsis. This is partially because so
far, the study of ellipsis is based largely on English (as the target
language), which seldom allows object ellipsis (but McShane has mentioned
some exceptions in the book). Thus, the extensive discussion of object
ellipsis in Russian is a great contribution. The study of object ellipsis
in other languages, e.g., Mandarin: Huang (1984, 1991), Li (2002);
Japanese: Hoji (1997, 1998); Korean: Kim (1999), Mandarin, Japanese and
Korean: Tomioka (2003); Hebrew: Doron (1999), Goldberg (2003), has also
got a lot of momentum recently. Thus, it will be of great benefit to see
how McShane's theory can be technically extended to those languages which
might or might not have case marking.

Second, the study of VP ellipsis can be further explicated (compared with
what McShane has described in the book). It is well known that VP ellipsis
may not be as universal as other types of ellipsis, e.g., Sluicing. How to
account for the cross-linguistic variations and how to set those
parameters in VP ellipsis is going to be the next item in the ellipsis
agenda. Take Mandarin for example, it has been argued that only deontic
auxiliaries/modals can license VP ellipsis (Wu, 2003).

Third, in general, the book is quite clear and pleasant to read. But the
lack of alignment between the Cyrillic/transliteration Russian and the
English gloss does make the reading of the examples hectic sometimes
(though I understand there is a good reason for McShane to have done so).


Doron, E. (1999) "V-Movement and VP-Ellipsis", in Shalom Lappin and
Elabbas Benmamoun (eds.) Fragments: Studies in Ellipsis and Gapping, New
York: Oxford University Press, 124-140.

Goldberg, L. (2003) "Deriving V-stranding VP Ellipsis", paper presented at
NELS-34 at Stony Brook University, New York.

Hoji, H. (1997) "Sloppy Identity and Formal Dependency", in Proceedings of
WCCFL 15, Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications, 209-223.

Hoji, H. (1998) "Null Object and Sloppy Identity in Japanese", Linguistic
Inquiry 29, 127-152.

Huang, C.-T. J. (1984) "On the Distribution and Reference of Empty
Pronouns", Linguistic Inquiry 15.4: 531-574.

Huang, C.-T. J. (1991) "Remarks on the Status of the Null Object", in
Robert Freidin (ed.) Principles and Parameters in Comparative Grammar,
Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 56-76.

Kim, S. (1999) "Sloppy/strict Identity, Empty objects, and NP ellipsis,"
JEAL 8, 255-284.

Li, H.-J. G. (2002) Ellipsis Constructions in Chinese, doctoral
dissertation, University of Southern California.

Tomioka, S. (2003) "The Semantics of Japanese Null Pronouns and its Cross-
linguistic Implications", in Kerstin Schwabe and Susanne Winkler (eds.)
The Interfaces: Deriving and Interpreting Omitted Structures, Amsterdam &
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Wu, H.-H. (2003) On Ellipsis and Gapping in Mandarin Chinese, MA. thesis,
National Tsing-Hua University.


Ruixi Ressy Ai is a Teaching Fellow and PhD student at the Department of
Linguistics, Harvard University. His research interests lie in the areas
of East Asian Languages, Theoretical Linguistics and Computational
Linguistics. Particularly, he is interested in ellipsis and event

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