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I’m specifically thinking about emails I receive all day where someone will write:

Haven’t seen it yet. Will respond when received.

If it were spoken, we would certainly hear:

I haven’t seen it yet. I will respond when I receive it.

It’s mostly the dropping of I that I wonder about. Is there a name for this phenomenon?

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Don't know of a name but do it frequently in speech. –  neil Sep 5 '12 at 13:50
    
Well played, Neil. –  Spark Sep 5 '12 at 14:28
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Besides links in answers also see “Telegram style” in wikipedia –  jwpat7 Sep 5 '12 at 14:44
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4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

It's not just pronouns that are getting dropped. It's whole chunks of sentences.

Will respond when received.

lacks not just its subject I, but also the subject it and the auxiliary verb is from when received. This is the written version of Conversational Deletion, a very common practice in speech, discussed here.

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There's an article in Wikipedia on "Null-subject" languages. It includes a section on "pro-drop" languages. So one possible answer is "pro-drop". Chinese and Japanese both drop the subject and the subject pronoun.

In Japanese, if the subject is is the speaker, it's usually indicated as the topic -- "Watashi wa" ("wa" is a topic marker) -- of the sentence and the rest of the discourse until the next instance of "wa". Until that next "wa", the listener assumes that the speaker is referring to himself/herself. Subjects take the "ga" marker. Japanese sentences are sometimes translated into English as "As for me (topic), I like fish" = "Watashi was, sakana (fish) ga suki (like) desu (it is)." The clearest translation is simply "I like fish". The structure of Japanese is quite different from English. "Fish" is the subject of the main clause in Japanese, but the object in English.

In Chinese, "I want to eat fish" is usually expressed as "Yào (want) chī (eat) yú (fish)" here in Taiwan. The complete sentence is something like "Wǒ (I) yào chī [xiǎo (small) yú] (fish)". The assumption is that the subject of the sentence is "Wǒ" if it's omitted, unless someone asks, for example, "Is Ms Chen here?" If she's not, then the answer is often "Bùzài" (Not here) instead of "Tā bùzài" (She's not here).

I've never heard the term "pro-drop" (Not a significant fact). There may be some other term as well. A linguistics professor would probably know.

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This is interesting information, Bill, but it doesn't really relate to English or answer the OP's question. See @JohnLawler's answer elsewhere on this page: he actually is (or was) a linguistics professor. –  Robusto Sep 5 '12 at 14:59
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I thought "pro-drop" was a possible answer to the OP's question. I knew that John Lawler (Prof Emeritus of Linguistics) would come up with something. In other languages, making something the topic of a sentence by dragging it to the front is called "topicalization", which I could never find in English linguistics books, but in English linguistics, it's called "fronting". Prof Lawler provided a general term for the omission of many different kinds of elements from spoken English; I provided a specific term for dropping pronouns. [I've an MA in Linguistics; never taught it, only English.] –  user21497 Sep 5 '12 at 15:20
    
Learning the grammar of Latin & German in high school helped me learn and understand the grammar of English, which used to bore me. Even though the idea of a universal grammar and language universals is being discredited now, I don't think it hurts to know something about a particular topic in other languages. But if the consensus is that we blinker ourselves and restrict all discussion to English only, I'll respect that and avoid talking about other languages. –  user21497 Sep 5 '12 at 15:45
    
This is not pro-drop; pro-drop is an artifact of a very different, vrey abstract, and very controversial theory. The two have been confused before; as I noted, it's not just pronouns that are being deleted. –  John Lawler Sep 5 '12 at 16:33
    
@BillFranke: I'm not arguing against learning other languages. I just think that if you can't bring an answer on this site around to the point where it deals with English directly, it may not be helpful. –  Robusto Sep 5 '12 at 17:36
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The dropping of I (and other subject pronouns) in English is called “diary drop”, after one of the contexts in which it is most common.

It is distinct from pro-drop (mentioned by @BillFranke), in Italian and other “null subject languages”, in that it cannot occur, for instance, in subordinate clauses:

Think (that) I have understood

* Think (that) have understood

Credo che ho capito [word-for-word translation of starred sentence]

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in Polish inflexion of verbs pretty much removes ambiguity this creates - one can drop most pronouns, and the sentence still works okay (and using the subject feels awkward if the inflexion is sufficient to determine it). –  SF. Sep 6 '12 at 14:11
    
@SF. Indeed: Polish, like most (all?) Slavic languages, is pro-drop. –  Daniel Harbour Sep 7 '12 at 16:52
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I would simply call this phenomenom an ellipsis, but what I know.

ellipsis

1.a. The omission of a word or phrase necessary for a complete syntactical construction but not necessary for understanding. b. An example of such omission.

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I'd rather connect ellipsis with omissions at the end of the sentence but ... –  SF. Sep 6 '12 at 14:02
    
It occurs in the middle and at the beginning too. M-W dictionary: "a : the omission of one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make a construction grammatically complete"link "'Begin when ready' for 'Begin when you are ready' is an example of ellipsis." –  user21497 Sep 7 '12 at 13:31
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