Bear with me, please. Consider this sentence:

"He might've turned his head and seen the incident, but I'm not sure."

This sounds awkward, but it makes sense, as seen agrees with might have. But this look at this sentence:

"He might've turned his head and saw the incident..."

This sounds more natural, and I would prefer to use this.

My question is as follows: When omitting words that are implied (in this case, he might have), does grammar follow the ellipsis or what is actually there? Since the he might have is omitted before seen, should one just use the simple past saw or the past participle seen? I'm not explaining this as well as I could, but that's the best I can do. If anyone understands what I'm asking, please feel free to edit this question accordingly.

  • In this case, I think the ellipsis would pull in the whole thing "He might've (...) and (he might've) seen …".
    – Lawrence
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 6:17
  • @Lawrence What do you mean?
    – user320354
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 6:18
  • 1
    I think I understand now what your question asks. If so, the answer is that ellipsis preserves the grammar, as if the omitted words weren't omitted.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 6:24
  • 2
    You've got it .
    – Lawrence
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 6:25
  • 1
    Because English verb grammar describes a time-relation environment. As I said, the present perfect is designed to fill the time between the trigger action and the present moment. There is no time left for a simple action, only parallel or nearly parallel perfect actions, utilising the same time space. This is why we cannot use all time phrases with all tenses: the tense and the time phrase should describe the same time period. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 6:37

1 Answer 1


One trait that many types and instances of ellipsis have in common is that the appearance of ellipsis is optional. The occurrence of VP-ellipsis, for instance, is often optional, e.g. He will help, and she will (help), too. Whether or not the second occurrence of the verb help is elided in this sentence is up to the speaker and to communicative aspects of the situational context in which the sentence is uttered. This optionality is a clear indication of ellipsis. - wikipedia

Although the article continues on to describe exceptions, the above makes for a good rule of thumb: a sentence that is considered to contain ellipsis (of the standard sort) must communicate identically whether with or without the ellipsis.

As such, the grammar of both forms follows that of the full (no ellipsis) form.

If you consider "He might've turned his head and seen the incident" to contain ellipsis, it would be natural to consider the full form to be:

  • He might've turned his head and he might've seen the incident.

Grammatically, you can't substitute saw for seen in that sentence, so saw doesn't work in the ellipsed version, either.

Now, you could argue that the conjunction has two elements:

  • He might've turned his head.
  • He saw the incident.

In this case, you'd argue that only the word "he" was elided: "He might've turned his head and he saw the incident".

However, this feels unnatural. I suspect it has something to do with the uncertainty of "might have turned" contradicting the certainty of "he saw", where the seeing appears to be contingent on the turning. Alternatively, we might consider the modal verb might to be so dominant that it naturally attaches to both parts of the conjunction, so saw doesn't work because * might saw doesn't work, grammatically.

Either way, if we provide the second part with an explicit modal, the sentence works again:

  • He might've turned his head and he definitely saw the incident.

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