Sins of Omission

By Jennifer Rappaport

Cutting words generally makes your prose more lively and focused. But sometimes you can get into trouble by leaving words out. One type of construction that often trips writers up is an “elliptical clause”: “a sequence of words in which a subject and verb are ‘understood’ rather than expressed” (Cook 30). For example, The berries were fresh, and the bananas ripe. There is no need to repeat were before ripe because your reader can easily fill in the missing term; in other words, the second were is understood.

But writers sometimes ask their readers to understand too much. Here are a few common problems and how to remedy them.

Problems with Number

The supplied verb and the implied verb should agree in number. Although some usage experts allow a mismatch in simple sentences because the reader can likely fill in the correct verb (Fowler 152), others are skeptical (Bernstein 162; Follett 323). It is thus best to avoid writing:

The berries were fresh, the banana ripe.

Here the first noun, berries, takes a plural verb, were, but the word that needs to be understood is was, because banana is singular. When one noun in your sentence is plural and the other is singular, supply both verbs:

The berries were fresh, and the banana was ripe.

Problems with Parts of Compound Verbs

The second part of a compound verb must match its auxiliary verb (Bernstein 162; Fowler 152–53). You cannot write:

We can and have bought berries at the farmers’ market.

Although the auxiliary, or helping, verb have can be followed by bought, the auxiliary verb can must be followed by buy. When you have two auxiliary verbs in a sentence, be sure to supply the correct forms of the main verbs that they help:

We can buy and have bought berries at the farmers’ market.

Problems with Voice

Verbs must agree in voice (Fowler 153). You cannot write:

The farmers will sell only fresh berries at the market, since only fresh berries should be.

In this example, the first verb is in the active voice (will sell), but the verb in the second half of the sentence is in the passive voice (should be), so you need to add sold:

The farmers will sell only fresh berries at the market, since only fresh berries should be sold.

Problems with Negative Expressions

Negative expressions often require two different verb forms (Follett 323). You cannot write:

The farmer at the green stall did not sell that many bananas but more than the farmer at the red stall.

Here again what’s missing is sold:

The farmer at the green stall did not sell that many bananas but sold more than the farmer at the red stall.

Problems with Inverted Sentences

A sentence with an inverted structure also often requires two different verb forms (Follett 324). You cannot write:

She was asked to buy berries, and buy berries she has.

We could rewrite as She was asked to buy berries, and bought berries she has, but we lose the musicality of the original sentence. A better revision would be the following:

She was asked to buy berries, and buy berries she did.

Problems with Adjectives and Verbs

A term should not do double duty as an adjective and a verb (Follett 325). You cannot write:

The storm destroyed the fruit at the covered stands and at those that were not.

Here the problem is that covered is used as an adjective before stands, so it cannot be asked to serve as a verb in the second part of the sentence. Instead, we can rewrite to maintain covered as an adjective:

The storm destroyed the fruit at the covered and uncovered stands.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1965.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Revised by Erik Wensberg, Hill and Wang, 1998.

Fowler, H. W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Revised by Ernest Gowers, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 1965.

Published 20 June 2017

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