I had a style discussion on another SE site. Part of the discussion boiled down to whether the following sentence is appropriate:

It was a bird. It had a black head and wings with a golden underbelly.

Some users consider that it is not, and that with should be replaced by and. That can be defended on the basis that a conjunction is required and that with is a preposition which has no place in an enumeration.

My perception is that with indicate a relation between what follows and what precedes that is semantically stronger than a simple enumeration, and can indicate for example an unexpected conjonction.

That may be explained grammatically, since together with can be used as a conjunction. And then I tend to perceive with alone as an abbreviation of it.

But is it legitimate to use such an abbreviation?

Which leads me to my question, which is not specifically about the English language:

How much grammatical codification is there of the appropriate use of abbreviation, or ellipsis, in linguistic studies and language descriptions?

I noted that according to the answer to a previous question, ellipsis denotes a very restricted kind of abbreviation.

2 Answers 2



with is neither abbreviation nor ellipsis of together with, but together with is a paraphrase of with.

and permits certain forms of ellipsis - with doesn't.

The patterns of ellipsis that have been observed in natural languages can be found on Wikipedia.

1. With is not an abbreviation of together with

There exist two closely related constructions:

  1. The instrumental: he hit it with a hammer.
  2. The comitative: he travelled with her.

English, like about a quarter of languages, renders both the same, namely with with. However, the with can in both cases be paraphrased in different ways: for the instrumental one could say e.g. he hit it using a hammer/he hit it by using a hammer/..., and for the comitative one could say e.g. he travelled together with her/he travelled in company with her/...

You can say that you choose a longer expression to clarify what you meant. For example, you could ask what was that thing called he travelled with? and that would apply to both a suitcase (something that accompanies you) and a train (which you use for travel). But if you ask what was that thing called he used to travel by? it would be clear that the train was meant.

However, since there are several possibilities of paraphrasing, you cannot legetimately say that the word itself is an abbreviation. That may not seem obvious with comitative with vs together with, but how exactly is instrumental with an abbreviation of using?

2. Where ellipsis actually happens here

We can of course say any of the following:

  1. It was a bird. It had a black head and wings.
  2. It was a bird. It had a black head and it had wings.

That is what ellipsis actually does.

However, you can't interpret the with part as having something omitted because nothing has been omitted:

  1. ?It was a bird. It had a black head with a golden underbelly.
  2. *It was a bird. It had a black head with it had a golden underbelly.

    • and says that that what comes after it plays the same role as what came before it, so the rest can be omitted.
    • with says that what comes after it is a closer description of what comes before it - compare how the preposition by can be used with instrumental meaning (e.g. he came by bicycle.).

3. Your example is grammatical, but it doesn't mean what you think it means

Note that it would be grammatical to say any of the following:

  1. It was a bird. It had a black head and wings and a golden underside. (what you intend to say)
  2. It was a bird with a black head and wings and a golden underbelly. (hence with begins the enumeration)
  3. It was a bird. It had a black head and wings with a golden underside. (except then of course the underside of the wings and not the belly would be golden)

But ...wings with a golden underbelly would usually be interpreted as meaning that the wings had a belly - that is grammatically correct, but semantically strange, so the listener asks himself "did he mean and a golden underbelly or with a golden underside?", guesses one and goes with that. That is: you have created a grammatically correct utterance which does not convey semantically what you desire to convey, hence the listener has to guess whether you made a grammatical error that happened to yield something grammatically correct or whether you made a lexical error (choosing the wrong word).

  • Thanks. My dictionnary (American heritage) seems to suggest that with has a weak conjunctive aspect. Another point is the following examples: The man with a golden hat smiled - The nose and ears with a long tail grinned - The Cheshire cat had only nose and ears with a long tail. See also my other comments to 2nd answer.
    – babou
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 14:46

Your question is rather strange, it mixes rather heterogeneous things, and the example you have chosen to introduce it and help your readers answer it is completely inadequate, for reasons already pointed out in part by user66554.

If what you really want to know is whether ellipsis is subject to rules as rigid as those that govern the construction of phrases, the answer is yes.

If by 'abbreviation' you mean the diverse strategies used to reduce the redundance (concerning the phonetic content or the graphic representation) of expressions used in context, that includes at least two kinds of resources, one syntactic, the other not. Syntactic abbreviation resources include coordination, substitution by pro-forms, ellipsis, and the use of sentence fragments (in focus) instead of full sentences, and those are also subject to rules and principles as rigid as those that govern the construction of the corresponding unabridged expressions, depend closely on such 'basic' construction rules, and can be formulated with the same degree of accuracy. As to non-syntactic 'abbreviation' devices, e.g., the use of acronyms like NATO, USA, TV etc., the use telly or fridge for television or refrigerator, Mr. for Mister, etc. (there is enormous variety in this chapter, see e.g. Hans Marchand's English Word Formation), the answer is that they are also subject to rules that can be accurately formulated, but they are lexical, morphological and/or phonological rules that by their very nature apply less generally than 'basic' syntactic rules because the development of the lexicon is subject to contextual and historical factors that tend to produce irregularities, exceptions, or plain singularities, as is well known.

However, as I said, your example - which is colloquial at best, but not really well formed, either syntactically or semantically, for reason also pointed out by user66554 - is not appropriate as an illustration of almost any of those resources except coordination (with or without ellipsis of black before wings depending on the scope assigned to black, which alters the sentence's truth conditions), but that is not what seems to worry you, since you focus the discussion leading to your question on the use of with instead of and, which is deviant, and, anyway, not an instance of 'abbreviation' in any of the senses relevant to this discussion.

  • Thanks. The example may not be good, but this is the example from which my questionning started. So it is for me the best. The point is that I would naturally use with to distinguish an item that has to stand out while possibly part of the enumeration. I do understand the syntax analysis of the first answer, but I perceive it more as a prescriptive use of an accepted syntax than as a descriptive use of what can make sense and introduce nuances. My idea of abbreviation or ellipsis was probably ill-inspired (I am not a linguist), but I would maintain that the sentence itself is appropriate....
    – babou
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 13:17
  • I was probably only trying to awkwardly emphasize the comitative aspect of with, and my initial example should have a comma after wings. What I mean is that the and-coordinated list forms a whole which comes with the part following with, therefore distinguishing, emphasizing, or opposing that comitative part. I do agree that my initial question was wrong, as is often the case when one tries first to find one's own answer (as recommended on SE), and ends up asking a poorly chosen derived question, rather than stating the initial problem (this even has a name, that I forgot).
    – babou
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 13:21
  • To be more precise, I am not taking with as a conjunction, but as a preposition (as I should), and the sentence is only stating that the bird had such and such, with a golden underbelly. Why should that be syntactically incorrect? Other examples I found on the web: We always wore a hat with gloves and a pocketbook to match. - his choice to wear a pair of chilli-red socks with his black tie got us talking ... - ... to wear a pair of colorful socks with evening wear., - The house had yellow walls with a red corrugated roof.
    – babou
    Commented Jan 17, 2015 at 14:07

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