Elliptical verb phrases must be interpreted indirectly, using a representation of the surface form of nearby (usually preceding) text. We used this fact to demonstrate the different availability of superficial representations of the two clauses in main-subordinate pairs. The acceptability of a later ellipsis was reduced when it took its meaning from a main clause that was followed by a subordinate clause, as compared with other combinations. In addition, positive acceptability judgements were made more quickly (1) when the antecedent clause was subordinate, rather than main, suggesting that the superficial form of a subordinate clause is more important, and (2) when the antecedent was in the immediately preceding clause, rather than two clauses back. These results support the idea that the surface form of subordinate clauses is selectively retained until the corresponding main clause has been read, but the surface form of a main clause is not retained after it has been interpreted.