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Thursday Tip: Using verb-free elements to add pace

March 22, 2012

Two weeks ago, our Tip showed how to use semicolons to tightly link independent clauses parallel in construction. If parallel independent clauses repeat a verb, you can often drop the second verb, leaving the reader to insert it mentally. Consider this example from the New York Times Book Review:

Her novels registered these events most secretly, her letters not at all.

The flatter version might have been and her letters registered them not at all. Dropping and and registered them shortens the sentence and picks up the cadence. This omission of a word or words (ellipsis–or more specifically, zeugma, according to my colleague Nick) also works with a semicolon: Here’s an example from Alfred Jazin’s On Native Grounds:

Frank Norris became a naturalist out of his admiration for Zola; Stephen Crane, because the ferocious pessimism of naturalism suited his temperament exactly.

Note that when a semicolon connects two clauses, a comma often stands in for the omitted words.

Omitting the verb in a series of clauses can slam together subjects and objects, tightening the links. Here’s an example from an old issue of The Economist from the ClearWriter archives:

The building was cramped, working capital scarce, infrastructure fragile, and the bureaucracy tiresome.

But be sure that the verb tense and number (was, in this case) apply to each shortened clause: was scarce, was fragile, was tiresome. Some writers (incorrectly) omit a plural verb when the guiding verb is singular, as in the following slightly adjusted example:

The building was cramped, working capital scarce, infrastructure fragile, and the bureaucrats tiresome.

The singular verb was no longer fits all the clauses, upsetting the power and rhythm of the sentence, thus the switch to bureaucracy.

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