ellipsis - Why is there omission of subject in sentences like "Thought you'd never ask."

  • Betty

    Another example is "Hope this helps."

    "Thought you'd never ask." is the omission of "I thought you'd never ask."

    "Hope this helps." is the omission of "I hope this helps."

    In English grammar, normally every sentence should have a subject, right?

    My first thought is that these two examples are so often used that they are like set phrases. But these are not really set phrases. You can alter the words after "thought" and "hope".

    Another possible explanation is the tendency to drop the subject if it is first person pronoun. It seems that in many languages, such as Spanish, Italian and Japanese, first person subject is usually omitted. Maybe English is going the same way? (Not exactly the same, since in Italian, verb forms change according to the person, so the subject is not necessary to understand who one's referring to.)

    And, apparently, such omission is more common in spoken English than in written English.

    Are there more examples of such first person subject omission? How often is such omission?

  • Answers
  • John Lawler

    This is due to a phenomenon that occurs in intimate conversational spoken English called "Conversational Deletion". It was discussed and exemplified quite thoroughly in a 1974 PhD dissertation in linguistics at the University of Michigan that I had the honor of directing.

    Thrasher, Randolph H. Jr. 1974. Shouldn't Ignore These Strings: A Study of Conversational Deletion, Ph.D. Dissertation, Linguistics, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

    To quote:

    • (1.16) Gotta go now.
    • (1.17) See you next Tuesday.
    • (1.18) Too bad about old Charlie.
    • (1.19) No need to get upset about it.
    • (1.20) Been in Ann Arbor long?
    • (1.21) Ever get a chance to use your Dogrib?
    • (1.22) Ever get to Japan, look me up.
    • (1.23) Good thing we didn't run into anybody we know.
    • (1.24) Last person I expected to meet was John.
    • (1.25) Wife wants to go to the mountains this year. [all from Thrasher 1974 p.5]

    The phenomenon can be viewed as erosion of the beginning of sentences, deleting (some, but not all) articles, dummies, auxiliaries, possessives, conditional if, and -- most relevantly for this discussion -- subject pronouns. But it only erodes up to a point, and only in some cases.

    Whatever is exposed (in sentence initial position) can be swept away. If erosion of the first element exposes another vulnerable element, this too may be eroded. The process continues until a hard (non-vulnerable) element is encountered." [p.9]

    In general, exposed first-person subjects are vulnerable in statements, and second-person in questions, and any exposed pronoun is vulnerable if it is recoverable from later in the sentence.

    • (3.2) Can't do it, can {I/you/he/she/they/we}? [p.59]

    Let me reiterate that this phenomenon only occurs in speaking English, and in other informal communication systems like email and txting that work like speech. It is not good formal written style, except for reporting dialog in a story.

  • RegDwigнt

    The "implied" subject is a common feature of conversation and some writing, especially fiction (not necessarily limited to dialogue). Where the subject is clear, it is frequently omitted. This is a form of ellipsis.

    Great. [For "That's great."]
    Such a waste. [For "That is such a waste."]
    Coming! [For "I'm coming."]

    There are many more. In each case, the subject will be understood, usually from something someone else has said.

    Person A: You don't have time to talk with Martha.
    Person B: Not true. I've moved my schedule around.

    There's even a famous advertising campaign in the U.S. featuring people from different walks of life who are sporting a "milk mustache" (milk on the upper lip from having recently drunk some milk). The headline? "Got milk?"

    enter image description here

    But the implied subject is most often seen in imperative statements:

    Go now.
    Get up.

    In the above, the subject is you, and is hardly ever included.

  • Pitarou

    The Principles and Parameters theory of languages might answer your question.

    According to this theory, languages have certain parameters that can be either on or off position. The property you are asking about is known as the pro-drop (pronoun dropping) parameter. Spanish is pro-drop, but English isn't.

    There is another parameter called verb attraction. The interesting thing is that all pro-drop languages are also verb attraction languages. If I understand the theory correctly, there are good reasons why a language with the pro-drop feature must have the verb attraction feature.

    So if you believe the Principles and Parameters theory, English cannot gain the pro-drop parameter until it has gained the verb attraction parameter.

    All the counter-examples given above are, presumably, exceptions that prove the rule.

  • Related Question

    grammar - What's the best way to find the subject in a sentence?
  • brilliant

    What's the best way to find the subject in a sentence? How do you define a subject? I am especially curious about such cases, in which the subject seems to be represented by more than one word:

    The majority of people didn't mind the new policy.

    A great number of students went on strike yesterday.


    and such cases where the passive voice is used:

    The man was bit by a dog.

    Children were frightened by the wolf.

    Also, please, consider such cases with ergative verbs:

    I broke my chair.

    The chair broke.

    The chair was broken by me.

  • Related Answers
  • Colin Fine

    This is actually a difficult question, and to some degree the answer depends on the theoretical framework you are using. As Dusty says, whether you consider the bare N or the whole NP (i.e. with or without complements and modifiers) as the subject is a matter of choice, and once you have passives then the syntactic subject may not be the semantic subject. In the 80's some grammarians decided that 'subject' wasn't a useful concept, and generalised it to the concept of a syntactic pivot.

    The point of which is not (just ;-)) to air my knowledge, but to point out that finding a definition which will cope with every edge case is hard.

  • CJM

    A simplistic explanation: the subject is the noun acting in a sentence, the predicate is the action/verb and the object being acted upon.

    For example:

    [Subject] [ Predicate ]

    [Subject] [[Verb] [Object]]

    [The majority of people] [[didn't mind] [the new policy]]

    If you want to dig deeper, the rules of sentence construction are more complicated with many variations and caveats.

    I like marenostrum's practical suggestion of asking a who or what question, but it can be misinterpreted:

    What was was it that people didn't mind?

    The new policy.

    What did a great number of students do yesterday?

    They went on strike.

  • marenostrum

    A practical way might be asking the sentence the question who. or what. (See RegDwight's comment, and "Edit 1" below) The answer is the subject.

    With your examples:

    The majority of people didn't mind the new policy.

    Who didn't mind the new policy?

    the majority of people

    A great number of students went on strike yesterday.

    Who did go on strike yesterday?

    a great number of students

    Edit 1: I am omitting the question what. In fact I was not fine with it while writing it. I wrote it in case of the subject be neuter but that was a mistake. So we should ask who not taking into account the answer may be a "it". Such as: The clever white mouse ate the cheese. Who did eat the cheese? The clever white mouse. Obviosly, the question what leads us to the object if asked against the subject: What did the white clever mouse eat? The cheese.

  • RegDwigнt

    In general, the subject is known as the doer or agent or be-er in an active sentence whereas it can be a recipient or the receiver of action in a passive sentence. Normally subjects come at the beginning of simple sentences or clauses. e.g.

    • The dog bit me. (active)
    • I was bit by the dog. (passive)

    In the case above, the dog is the subject of first sentence (in active voice) and I is the subject of second sentence (in passive).

    A simple sentence or a clause usually takes the form of subject + predicate. To be clear, the subject is the noun/pronoun/noun phrase that stands before the predicate. (Predicate is the phrase containing verb and object/complement which describes something about the subject.)