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Which form is correct?

His palms were sweaty and fingers trembling, but...

or

His palms were sweaty and fingers were trembling, but...

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  • 1
    Both are equally correct, but you need to repeat his in order for it to sound natural. Feb 7, 2014 at 10:46
  • missing context, I'd prefer the second form as it is more clear. I'd also prefer to repeat "his" for that reason Feb 7, 2014 at 11:23
  • Not that it's any more correct than the previous suggestions, but from a purely preferential standpoint, I put forth "His palms were sweaty and his fingers trembled," etc. The repetition of "were" makes the action seem passive. Feb 8, 2014 at 7:23

1 Answer 1

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They're both correct.

Let's start with an even more clearly correct equivalent:

His palms were sweaty and his fingers were trembling, but…

Here we have two simple clauses, joined with and. There's nothing one could complain about, or anything puzzling.

Your two examples each elide either the pronoun that is part of the subject (his) or the pronoun and also the verb (were) from the second clause.

The main thing here is how obvious the elision is. You have to elide quite a bit before something becomes ungrammatical, but it can become bad before then (having writing that is grammatical and horrible to read is worse than having writing that is technically incorrect by some rules, but clear and enjoyable to read).

Both are obvious enough to be understandable. We would probably want less elision in a formal context (something closer to my example above than either of yours), but from the meaning this sounds like a case where the benefit to the pace is more important than anything else.

You might also consider the different elision:

His palm were sweaty and his fingers trembling, but…

I like leaving in the his because while I'm leaving out the were to hasten the pace and convey his excitement, keeping in the repetition of his could help keep a focus on "him" and his emotional state.

That said, I might disagree if I saw the fuller sentence after the but.

All four (the two examples in your question and the two in this answer) serve the same task technically, and the elision in all of those which elide is justifiable, so you're left picking between them on the grounds of which to your ear best serves the emotions you want to convey or simply sounds better; which is a matter of taste.

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  • No matter how much I try, I cannot bear to think that the asker's second example is acceptable. I don't know exactly how to justify it, but my intuition tells me that the inclusion of "were" turns the second clause into an independent clause, and the only interpretation must be that "fingers" is indeterminate, and that the "his" can't carry over. Ie, while the subject's palms were sweaty, fingers in general were trembling in the vicinity of the subject.
    – nitro2k01
    Feb 11, 2014 at 18:00
  • @nitro2k01 it's not a fully independent clause; considered on its own we would have to at best consider it a use of a sentence fragment for effect. As it is, it's a reasonable elision; the author has decided to elide his (let the reader work it out) but keep were (keep the reader focused on descriptions of his state). Now, whether it's a good elision, is another matter, but that's a matter of taste as I say (of the four possibilities mentioned, I'd say it's the weakest).
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 11, 2014 at 18:05
  • "considered on its own we would have to at best consider it a use of a sentence fragment for effect." How so? "Fingers were trembling" is a fully qualified, even if lacking, sentence, so it could be an independent clause. The way we derive that it is related to the first clause is purely by context and not grammar. Try substituting the second clause with something grammatically similar, but with a clearly different meaning: "His palms were sweaty and alarms were sounding". "Fingers trembling" on the other hand is not a fully qualified sentence, so we don't have that choice there.
    – nitro2k01
    Feb 11, 2014 at 19:05

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