I was a little surprised by "Virus" in the first panel of the comic (I would expect "A virus"). I'm not a native speaker so my opinion counts for little, but did any native speakers thought it was a little peculiar, or on the contrary completely normal?
Anatoly: I was a little surprised by "Virus" in the first panel of the comic (I would expect "A virus"). … did any native speakers thought it was a little peculiar, or on the contrary completely normal?
IMHO, it's both a little peculiar and also completely normal.
You're right that an indefinite article is expected. But in informal speech it's common to leave out the first syllable or two of an utterance, especially when you're preoccupied — Otto Jespersen called this prosiopesis, and gives examples like "Hope I'm not boring you", "See you this afternoon", and "'Fraid not".
@ Anatoly: It's very common for unstressed function words (a/the, but also auxiliaries and pronouns) to be cut off at the beginning of a colloquial utterance. So it's perfectly possible to say "You going?" (meaning "Are you going?") or "She here yet?" (meaning "Is she here yet?") or "Kid's crazy" (meaning "The kid's crazy") or, as in the comic strip "Virus" (meaning "A virus"). Native speakers know that the missing word or words are there, because if it's NOT at the beginning of an utterance it's completely ungrammatical to leave the words out. So you can't say "Are you writing virus?" or "Ask them if she here yet" or "I think kid's crazy". But I've long suspected that this utterance-initial truncation is a real trap for non-native speakers of English whose language (like Russian) doesn't have articles, because they hear what sounds like a grammatical utterance that matches their own native grammar, and it makes it harder for them to acquire the real grammar of English. Your comment confirms my suspicions.
In addition, hackers and those of similar ilk tend to be somewhat more laconic in their speech when engaged in programming tasks. This is probably because programming is a very non-lingual activity, and one which requires great amounts of concentration.
Typical hacker conversation:
A: Hey dude, are you hungry? I was thinking of ordering Chinese takeout.
B (typing furiously): No. Later.
A: Maybe in an hour or so?
A: Okay, let me know.
I think in this strip the missing indefinite article is quite deliberate. She's a hacker (a particularly badass one if I remember my XKCD) and hackers characteristically give very abrupt (even to the point of being useless) answers to some types of questions. If I ask my co-workers whether they would like to have lunch at Adequate Burger or the Fat Italian, they will probably say "Yes."
Mark, Bob: thanks for your comments. I recognize all the examples you provided as normal in informal speech (it never occurred to me that they only happen utterance-initially, but I do recognize them as ungrammatical elsewhere). Still, the "virus" thing remains a bit weird – very possibly simply because I haven't encountered enough similar examples of omitting an initial indefinite article. So, Bob, while your "She here yet?" and "You going?" look perfectly natural to me, something like "What're you reading?" – "Book" doesn't. "Kid's crazy" (or, say, "Man's got some balls!") are similar (and look normal to me), but not quite the same.
Bob Ladd wrote: Native speakers know that the missing word or words are there, because if it's NOT at the beginning of an utterance it's completely ungrammatical to leave the words out.
If someone doesn't pronounce an utterance-initial article or verb, then there isn't anything there, physically speaking. Of course, native speakers know what can be left unspoken in utterance-initial position, which is, perhaps, what you meant.
The example of eating apple as a natural way of saying that one is eating an apple may be due to the fact that apples, along with many other foodstuffs, bear their names both as count nouns and as mass nouns. An item of food that bears its name only as a count noun may well require an indefinite article in its casual designation. Hence consider:
Q: What are you having? [?] A: Cow.
Q: What are you having? A: A cow.
The latter exchange sounds natural to me, unlike the former. Likewise in this instance:
Q: What are you eating? [?] A: Egg.
Q: What are you eating? A: An egg.
I look forward to being put in my place by rebuttals from native speakers.
Wow, that's interesting. I'm also not a native speaker, and have never even heard about this utterance-initial concept, but my "speech processor" somehow picked it up. I often structure short questions like "You done the homework?", but didn't realize there is a term for that.
Does prosody have any influence here? The responses "apple" and "virus" are at least two syllables while "book" is only one. If the response had instead been "article" or "homework" would it sound better than book? Or if the response had been "note" would it have sounded as bad as "book"?
@michael zeleny – with respect to your initial example, I'd say that the second formation is more natural because the phrase "don't have a cow" is relatively well known to mean "don't get upset" so asking what someone is having and them responding "a cow" is understood as meaning that they are upset about something whereas "having cow" is less clear about what is going on.
'prosiopesis'. What a fine word to save the claim that the null subject parameter is the same in English as in French, when it clearly isn't.
Now obviously you can only miss out the subject in an uninflected language like English when it is clearly understood, which explains why it is most commonly omitted in the first person singular. You can miss it out in the second person in questions, but there would have to be a lot of contextual clues for it to be omitted in statements.