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Techniques > Use of language > Modifying meaning > Omission

Subject | Object | Context | Process | See also


We often leave things out of what we say, assuming that the other person will fill in the gaps. To explain everything in full detail would mean that we would spend much longer filling in the finer elements. It is thus much easier to abbreviate and assume.

Chomsky (1955, 1975) described how what we say is often a long way from what we mean and that this is a normal aspect of speech, to the point where we often do not realize we are missing out important information. These omissions can be quite significant, telling the alert listener about the assumptions and other underlying thinking of the speaker.

Omitting the subject

The subject of the sentence is the 'doer', which uses the verb. A common way of removing this is by replacing a noun with a less specific pronoun.

It sat on the mat. [what is 'it'?]

They ran away. [Who ran away?]

A common way of removing the subject is use of a passive voice, in which it is easy to omit the subject.

The man was found guilty. [Who by?]

The business is failing. [Failing who? Who says? Why?]

Subject removal is common when the person speaking does not want to name the subject, for example when the subject is themself and the action is one that they would rather not admit.

The person was killed. [Who by?]

The gun went off. [Who pulled the trigger?]

Removing the subject can lead to the listener inserting themselves into this position.

He was lonely. [Like you...]

She succeeded. [Like you could...]

Omitting the object

The object of the sentence is the recipient of the verb. Omitting the object leaves the listener unsure as to what the verb is applying. The object may sometimes be completely removed, or may be replaced by such as a pronoun.

I gave it to them. [Who?]

We give. [To whom?]

He wanted. [What?]

When the action is happening to somebody, and it is not clear who that person is, then the listener may well put themselves in the shoes of the object and thus take on the verb.

He pushed them downstairs.

I have helped many people.

The object is to some extent omitted when expressed as in nominalization. It is thus not a concrete thing but an action wrapped up as a concept.

He found success.

She was a failure.

Omitting attributes

Attributes of the subject, object and verb, typically specified with adjectives and adverbs may also be deleted, leaving less information. Attributes of the object may also be omitted. Thus this sentence is far from complete:

The cat sat on the mat. [What sort of cat? What sort of mat?]

 A fuller sentence that describes 'it' may thus be described as follows (although this is still far from complete):

The old, fat, ginger cat sat very quietly on the new, brown, woollen mat. [Where? Why?]

Omitting context

The richness of thought and context and the limitations of language means that any sentence will contain many deletions, and the context brought with such speech parts as conjunctions and prepositions adds more detail.

The old, fat, ginger cat sat very quietly on the new, brown, woollen mat, next to the little grey mouse, at the front door of the old house on that sunny Summer's afternoon. [Still much missing]

Omitting the process

When a verb implies an action, the detail of that action may be missed out, leaving the listener unsure about how and when the action is to be carried out.

You take it. [How? When?]

I bought the car. [How? When?]

When an evaluation or judgement is made, the process of decision-making is often omitted. This can make the listener question the authority of the decision-maker or the fairness of the process.

It's obvious. [Says who?]

That's wrong. [By what criteria?]

It's been decided. [How? When? By whom?]

See also

Subject, Object, Object Relations Theory

Chomsky N. (1955). The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. Manuscript, Harvard University. Published, with an introduction by the author, New York: Plenum Press, 1973

Chomsky N. (1975). Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon

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