Sentence 1: He wanted to take no risks, however small.

Sentence 2: He wanted to take no risks, however small they are.

Do the above sentences have the same meaning? Why could we omit "they are" ?

Could someone tell me the specific grammatical rule governing this phenomenon?

Thank you very much!

  • Wikipedia has this page, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellipsis_%28linguistics%29, which might be helpful, though (it is) a bit long. Aug 3, 2014 at 16:43
  • Since wanted is past tense, I think at the very least one should cast however small they were in the past as well. But I don't either of those actually work very well - given that the risks are effectively "hypothetical", I'd much prefer however small they might be. Aug 3, 2014 at 19:44

2 Answers 2


This is an example of an elliptical sentence.

Elliptical Clauses or Elliptical Constructions are some special clauses in English, in which certain words are omitted. The avoided words are implied within the clause itself; so, leaving them out doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence in any way. Also, leaving out some words may make the sentence better by avoiding redundancy.

He wanted to take no risks, however small (they are, they may be).


I can find no definitive rule. There is only common colloquial usage. Words are omitted in sentences if the omission is so common that the reader or listener supplies them mentally. This implies no ambiguity of meaning.

If I tap on a book and say: "I can't wait to start this book", the listener assumes I mean: "I can't wait to start reading this book."

  • -1. You may not know the rule, but that doesn't mean you should teach people that there isn't one.
    – user230
    Aug 3, 2014 at 19:12
  • @snailplane I agree with you.....I will amend my answer. Aug 3, 2014 at 19:20

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