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How to Write an Elliptical Sentence: Improve Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

The beauty of elliptical language is not in the words a sentence contains, but in the words it does not. In English language prose and poetry, elliptical construction involves the omission of a word or words, while elliptical storytelling involves artfully obtuse language to dance around certain subjects. To understand what an elliptical construction looks like, just look at the first sentence of this paragraph. Its second clause omits use of the verb “contain,” but the verb is nonetheless implied by the first part of the sentence. This arguably makes the sentence more elegant than it would be with a second instance of “contain.”

Elliptical writing occurs when an author opts to not describe an event literally. Instead the writer implies it obliquely—which can be more artful than spelling it out.



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What Is Elliptical Language?

Elliptical language fits into two categories, elliptical sentence construction and elliptical storytelling.

  • Elliptical sentence construction involves the omission of words from a sentence. These omitted words are implied by other elements within the sentence. Elliptical structures include a noun ellipsis, a verb ellipsis, or a verb-phrase ellipsis.
  • Elliptical storytelling uses the power of implication and suggestion to discuss a subject matter—particularly subject matters that are taboo in nature.

3 Examples of Elliptical Language

In individual sentences, you can spot elliptical constructions by looking for omitted words. Elliptical sentences still conform to the rules of English grammar; they just say the same amount with fewer words. Here are some examples of elliptical constructions. Use them to further your understanding of both an elliptical sentence and an elliptical clause.

  1. A noun ellipsis removes a noun from a sentence. For instance: “I did a full workout, and Marie did too.” This sentence removes the phrase “a full workout” from its second independent clause. We understand that what Marie “did” was “a full workout,” and the elision of these words does not diminish that understanding.
  2. A verb ellipsis omits a verb from a sentence. For instance: “I drank water and Ellen milk.” The verb “drank” appears only once but it refers to both “I” and “Ellen.” In the case of Ellen, the verb is merely implied.
  3. A verb-phrase ellipsis omits an entire phrase that’s anchored by a verb. For instance: “I went to the movies, but Jerry did not.” We know that the thing Jerry did not do was “go to the movies,” but we omit it as part of this elliptical construction. The meaning of the sentence does not change with the elliptical clause omitted.

These three structures comprise the principal types of elliptical construction.

When it comes to elliptical storytelling, authors sometimes mask the real meaning of a sentence or entire word, couching it in metaphor and oblique language. When using elliptical style, authors will offer contextual clues to steer the reader to the meaning beneath the surface of the text.

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The Benefits of Using Elliptical Language in Writing

Elliptical language is routinely used in both written and spoken English. A lot of redundancy can be excised from sentences through the use of an elliptical expression.

When authors are known for elliptical storytelling, readers know to not take everything they say to be fully literal. The National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates is a master of using elliptical language to delve into uncomfortable subjects. She often seeks out stories that haven’t—or maybe couldn’t—be told. Oates found a role model for elliptical storytelling in the 19th century Irish-born author Oscar Wilde.

In his seminal novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes about homosexuality and male beauty using artful prose. In 19th-century London, where Wilde lived and wrote, homosexuality was illegal, sometimes even penalized by death. Although Wilde writes into his own sexual oppression and repression in this novel, the subversive nature of the prose—the elliptical language Wilde employed in order to obfuscate such a taboo subject—is part of what makes the book so powerful. Would The Picture of Dorian Gray be as transcendent if homosexuality had been accepted and more normalized at the time of its writing? Perhaps not.


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3 Tips for Using Elliptical Language in Your Writing

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If you actively seek to include elliptical language in your own writing, consider these tips as you work:

  1. Review existing sentences and see if any nouns, verbs, or verb phrases can be omitted to create elliptical structures. Note that the second clauses and third clauses of sentences often contain omittable words.
  2. Divide two independent clauses with a semicolon; look for opportunities to remove nouns and verbs in the clause that follows the semicolon. Likewise, if you’re writing consecutive sentences that share a common verb or noun, look to insert an elliptical phrase into the second sentence.
  3. Elliptical storytellers are masters of symbolism and metaphor. If you’ve written a story or anecdote using literal language, and you’re seeking some artful elliptical nuance, think in terms of metaphor. How could you tell the same tale in a more oblique fashion? What types of figurative language could help make your story a bit more multilayered and complex, in the style of a Joyce Carol Oates or an Oscar Wilde?

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