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I'm reading Frank Herbert's Dune and I've noticed a certain type of sentence structure he uses quite often. It seems to me to be wrong, or at least non-standard, but I cannot find an explanation of the proper grammar rules regarding these types of sentences.

Here are two examples:

"Jessica felt the back of the note, rubbed the surface for coded dots."

"A gentle draft feathered her cheeks, stirred her hair."

It seems to me that the phrases after the commas should either be present participle phrases ("Jessica felt the back of the note, rubbing the surface for coded dots") or there should be a connecting word included ("Jessica felt the back of the note and rubbed the surface for coded dots"). As it's written it reads awkwardly.

Does this type of structure have a name? Is it considered correct?

  • Using 'and' seems improper in my opinion, because the second clause is simply a synonym for the first. 'And' usually implies a second, different action. Here it is the same action. – Brian J Mar 15 '17 at 10:45
  • This may be semantics, but is the second phrase considered a clause? Doesn't a clause require a subject? I only mention it because it gave me trouble researching this because this doesn't seem to be an independent clause-dependent clause structure. – JonathanG Mar 15 '17 at 12:33
  • The second subject is ellipted. – Brian J Mar 15 '17 at 13:26
  • @BrianJ I'm not sure I agree that the second clauses are synonyms for the first. In the initial example, the first clause tells us what she is feeling, the second tells us why. They describe different aspects of the same action. In the second example the relationship is different, its just a list of things the draught did, it touched her cheeks as with a feather (OED) and it stirred her hair. Again, different aspects of the same action, but not synonymous. – Spagirl Jul 13 '17 at 14:05
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It makes sense to me if there are only two clauses in these types of sentences. The "and" between the clauses is implied. It would sound strange to speak that way, but I like it as a stylistic choice in fiction writing.

However, if there were three or more clauses:

Jessica felt the back of the note, rubbed the surface for coded dots, deciphered what they meant.

I might object to the missing "and" between the second and third clause.

  • There are instances of three phrase sentences, much like your example. I find them even more distracting. – JonathanG Mar 15 '17 at 12:28
  • I think this example is different than the others because the individual clauses are not all synonymous, but rather the third introduces a new action. – Brian J Mar 15 '17 at 13:27
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Is it considered correct?

From a strict English language point-of-view, probably not. However, as it is more than likely done deliberately to achieve a specific effect in the reader's mind, author(s) of such constructs are probably not that bothered.

At heart, it's probably a comma splice error over phrases using Situational Ellipsis

Situational Ellipsis (Subject pronouns)

When we do not need to mention someone or something because it is obvious from the immediate situation, we use situational ellipsis.
...
We can also omit a third person pronoun (he, she, it, they) at the beginning of a clause in informal conversation when it is obvious who or what we are referring to.

Cambridge Dictionary

As such:

Jessica felt the back of the note, rubbed the surface for coded dots.

with the subject pronoun restored would become:

Jessica felt the back of the note, she rubbed the surface for coded dots.

and fixing the comma-splice you might get:

Jessica felt the back of the note and she rubbed the surface for coded dots.

See also "Bill J" quoted in this answer about omitting a repeated subject.


Does this type of structure have a name?

If it does have a name (when done intentionally for specific effect) I don't know it, although I have seen similar constructs in several works of fiction when the author is trying to impart a sense of urgency or immediacy to the actions described.

To my mind, the "abbreviated" sentence form gives a sense of urgency -- almost as though the author hasn't time to describe the action "in full" without getting left behind. For example, taking the (hypothetical) three-clause phrase from dmzza's answer:

Jessica felt the back of the note, rubbed the surface for coded dots, deciphered what they meant.

This version (to me) imparts much more urgency of action than a more wordy, possibly more correct, version would do:

Jessica felt the back of the note. She rubbed the surface to check for coded dots and on finding some she deciphered what they meant.

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This is fiction; the author has the freedom to experiment with style, sentence structure, vocabulary, really just about everything.

  • 2
    This doesn't really answer the question. Partly because (1) most literature, fiction or otherwise, provides some license to the author. Even legal opinions and court orders are known to employ playful use of language, and (2) you've sidestepped the question of whether the author was "experimenting" at all, or using a known construction. In other words, your answer manages to be both too broadly applicable, and not applicable enough. – Parthian Shot Mar 15 '17 at 19:46

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