The Elliptical Sentence

As some of you know, I am a proud grammar stickler: a grammar Nazi, to some, without the whole world domination and ethnic genocide thing. I’ve therefore decided to revive my hastily aborted grammar series on this.

This morning I was doing a particularly brutal bodyweight workout for my lower body, and found myself exclaiming, “Legs is always painful.”

Now, no one actually said this, but I immediately imagined some pedant correcting me: “Legs ARE always painful, Ray. Legs is plural.”

And that, of course, set me on an entirely imaginary conversation during which I explained in annoyingly minute detail why my phraseology (IS vs ARE) is actually more grammatically correct… because that is how I run my sad little life.

Today’s topic is therefore the elliptical sentence, of which “legs is always painful” is an example.

An elliptical sentence doesn’t take its name from the shape of an ellipsis, but rather from these fellows, who are also called ellipses:

The word “ellipsis” comes from the ancient Greek for “omission” and usually indicates that something is missing.  In the example of my workout sentence, what was missing is the word “workout” and its implied singular article “a”.  Consider:

“Legs is always painful.”


A legs workout is always painful.”

See?  Now it’s clear that the subject of the sentence is the workout, and not the legs.

Elliptical sentences are more commonly experienced in the context of measurement, in my opinion. For example, how much beer did you drink last night?

“I drank three beer”


“I drank three beers.”

Unbelievably, the first is the correct expression, because this is also an example of an elliptical sentence. With fluids like beer, it is not possible to count the instances of beer flowing into one’s mouth. One must instead count the number of mugs, glasses, bottles, litres, or  mouthfuls.

Therefore, the elliptical nature of the sentence comes about because that element of measurement is absent but assumed. Consider the following:

“I drank three bottles of beer”


“I drank three beer”

The “bottles of” is assumed to be missing, and the object of the sentence is the three bottles, and not specifically the beer itself.

As always, I must stress that I am not a formally trained language specialist. If true experts disagree with my treatment, I am more than happy to step aside and let expertise reign. So if I have made an error here, do feel free to correct me in the comments below.

Happy Christmas Eve.