There is a fairly common figure of speech where one deliberately imposes a parallel structure that is not quite grammatical. For instance, consider the question "Is A less, equal, or greater than B?" This is ungrammatical, because while the correct preposition for less and greater is indeed "than", the correct preposition for "equal" is "to". In fact one never says that "A is equal than B." And yet, using this parallel structure is terser and arguably more pleasant than asking "Is A less than, equal to, or greater than B?"

I know there is a (probably Greek) term for this rhetorical device, but for the life of me I cannot remember it. The closest I was able to find was "zeugma", but that doesn't quite seem to fit. Does anyone here know?

  • I don't understand how this is a question about rhetorical devices or Greek. – The Nate May 22 '17 at 9:14
  • The technique is, I believe, a kind of rhetorical device, and I'm almost certain the actual term is Greek. – rmehlinger May 22 '17 at 15:19
  • Have you tried looking at any of those massive lists of rhetorical devices that exist? – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 2:58
  • I have. If you have any recommendations I'm more than open. However, that is also a time consuming process. – rmehlinger May 23 '17 at 3:15
  • The last time this question was asked here english.stackexchange.com/questions/38287/… the answers used terms like incorrect and lax. – Brillig Jun 10 '17 at 0:30

I would say it's two things. First, it's born from the requirement of parallelism ("the use of identical or equivalent syntactic constructions in corresponding clauses or phrases" American Heritage).

A perfectly regular sentence would have been:

Is A less than, equal to, or greater than B?

We could say the author then applied an ellipsis ("The omission of a word or phrase necessary for a complete syntactical construction but not necessary for understanding" American Heritage) to remove the first two prepositions:

Is A less, equal, or greater than B?

We could then say that it's not an incorrect, but incomplete construction. Yes it suggests (incorrectly) that "than" should apply to "less" and "equal". But most people will have a semantic rather than a syntactic approach to the sentence (i.e. they will focus on various possible mathematical relations between A and B, rather than the prepositions). Hence the lack of symmetry between "less/greater than" and "equal to" is drowned in the parallelism of the sentence.

To my knowledge, there is no term describing this interesting combination of two factors (which can sometimes give us a problem); if there really wasn't, it would have to be invented!

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