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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?

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"Maybe English is going the same way?" ??? I rather think English went the same way. Moreover, I'm pretty sure that works in almost every language. –  Em1 May 7 '12 at 7:32
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Find myself catching these all the time when I type emails, while I'm proofreading them right before I click send. "Hope you're feeling better;" that sort of thing. –  J.R. May 7 '12 at 7:48
    
I don't know how frequent it is for first-person subject to be omitted in English, but the comparison with Italian doesn't hold, because our verb forms change according to the person to whom they refer ("vado", "vai", "va", "andiamo" for "I go", "you go", "he goes", "we go", for example), so that the subject is not necessary to understand who you're referring to (same as with Latin). However, when the forms are the same (for example, present subjunctive for the three singular pronouns), the subject must be used to prevent confusion. –  Paola May 7 '12 at 7:56
    
@Paola, you're right. I edited a little. –  Betty May 7 '12 at 8:03
    
@Em1, I don't understand what you mean. –  Betty May 7 '12 at 8:03

3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

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.

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Wow. This looks very professional. :) One more thing I want to know is how often or how wide-spread such erosion is in spoken English. Which is more natural, to drop the beginning of sentences or to say full sentences? Full sentences are more "proper English", but some people may think it too formal, too pretentious, or as Kris commented, too sentimental. I'm not a native speaker of English. When I talk to English speaking people, should I try to say full sentences or learn to drop the beginning? –  Betty May 8 '12 at 4:22
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Do what they do. While you're waiting to figure out what it is that they actually do, it's always safe to start with formal, correct, English and advance into more informal styles as intimacy develops. Their speech will change, too, as you get closer. It's the same in any language. Just pay attention to how your addressees talk, and follow their lead. –  John Lawler May 8 '12 at 13:52
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Thank you very much! –  Betty May 9 '12 at 10:48
    
You don't make any allowances for fiction, and matters of style therein. Fiction ain't part of English now? –  Robusto Apr 15 '13 at 13:38
    
To the extent fiction reports speech, it uses it. Style is a rather different concept, I think. –  John Lawler Apr 15 '13 at 16:22

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.
Stop!
Get up.

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

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I think imperative has to be considered differently. –  Em1 May 7 '12 at 11:56
    
@Em1: Included here for the sake of completeness. –  Robusto May 7 '12 at 11:58
    
Well, if the objective is completeness, I'm wondering why "Body by milk." has no predicate. (j/k-no need to really address that...) –  J.R. May 7 '12 at 14:30
    
Well, thank you for writing such a long answer, but I think your answer is not exactly about what I'm asking. :) –  Betty May 8 '12 at 4:03

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.

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Thank you. In languages like Italian, verb forms change according to the person, so the subject is not necessary to understand who one's referring to. Is that what you mean? :) –  Betty May 8 '12 at 4:25
    
No, that's not what I mean. I don't know much about this, but my understanding is that verb attraction languages sometimes put the verb in a different place in the sentence. For example, if English had verb attraction we would say, "I eat often cheese." rather than "I often eat cheese." I can't tell you much more than that, and I don't know why the pro-drop parameter depends on the verb attraction parameter. If you want to know more about this you'll have to ask somebody else. –  Pitarou May 10 '12 at 7:44

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