I started reading the Neuromancer and I'm facing a difficulty, especially in the following excerpt:

Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.

I assume the second sentence compares his teeth to a webwork [...], however I don't understand why the 'like' keyword is omitted in this construction. I'd have expected something like "his teeth were like a webwork [...]".

I haven't found anything about that on Google, any idea?


  • Perhaps because his teeth were a webwork of . . . Similarly "He looked at me, his eyes red from rubbing". – Weather Vane Apr 21 '18 at 21:52
  • Thanks, but then, why are we omitting "were"? – Xyna Apr 21 '18 at 22:12
  • I don't have a definitive answer but there is a similar question. – Weather Vane Apr 21 '18 at 22:18
  • 2
    It's called a metaphor. – Kevin Apr 21 '18 at 22:29
  • @Xyna Good question. The word that is ‘missing’ is more probably ‘being’: “..., her teeth <being> a webwork... etc”. – Tuffy Apr 21 '18 at 23:03

There are two issues here: grammatical and rhetorical/literary.

Grammatically, in

[1] He saw Case and smiled, h͟i͟s͟ ͟t͟e͟e͟t͟h͟ ͟a͟ ͟w͟e͟b͟w͟o͟r͟k͟ ͟o͟f͟ ͟E͟a͟s͟t͟ ͟E͟u͟r͟o͟p͟e͟a͟n͟ ͟s͟t͟e͟e͟l͟ ͟a͟n͟d͟ ͟b͟r͟o͟w͟n͟ ͟d͟e͟c͟a͟y͟.

the underlined part is a supplement in the form of a verbless clause (CGEL, pp 1359-1360).

As was pointed out in the comments, the meaning is the same as if we had

[2] He saw Case and smiled. His teeth w͟e͟r͟e͟ a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.

More on the vebless clauses below.

Rhetorically, the difference between [1] and [2] on the one hand, and

[3] He saw Case and smiled, his teeth l͟i͟k͟e͟ a webwork of East European steel and brown decay.

on the other, is that [3] uses a simile, whereas [1] and [2] use a metaphor.

More on verbless clauses as supplements, from CGEL, pp 1359-1360. Note that supplements are 'elements which occupy a position in linear sequence without being integrated into the syntactic structure of the sentence' (p. 1350).

(f) Verbless clause

[28] i The tourists, m͟o͟s͟t͟ ͟o͟f͟ ͟t͟h͟e͟m͟ ͟f͟o͟r͟e͟i͟g͟n͟e͟r͟s͟, had been hoarded onto a cattle truck.
        ii The defendants sat in the dock, t͟h͟e͟i͟r͟ ͟h͟e͟a͟d͟s͟ ͟i͟n͟ ͟t͟h͟e͟i͟r͟ ͟h͟a͟n͟d͟s͟.
       iii The only household chore men excelled at was - d͟r͟u͟m͟r͟o͟l͟l͟ ͟p͟l͟e͟a͟s͟e͟ - taking out the

In [i] the supplement is comparable in function to a relative clause: compare who were most of them foreigners (or most of whom were foreigners). If the supplement consisted of foreigners on its own, it would be an ascriptive NP (noun phrase), like those in [22] (e.g. Her father, a͟ ͟d͟i͟e͟-͟h͟a͟r͟d͟ ͟c͟o͟n͟s͟e͟r͟v͟a͟t͟i͟v͟e͟, refused to even consider the proposal.); most of them, however, does not function as a modifier in NP structure, so most of them foreigners must be analysed as a reduced clause - one which could not stand alone as a sentence. The supplement in [28ii] could likewise not stand alone, but differs in its internal structure in that their heads is subject. An equivalent integrated construction would have a modifierwith the form of with + verbless clause: with their heads in their hands. The supplement in [28iii], by contrast, could stand alone as a sentence. It is simply a fragmentary main clause (with the illocutionary force of a directive) used as an interpolation.

  • Thanks for your answer, I was not aware of the verbless clause construction, is there a reason to use this construction instead of one with a verb? – Xyna Apr 22 '18 at 0:30
  • @Xyna It's just a matter of what 'sounds better' to the writer at that particular instance. It will have to do with such hard-to-define things as how the text 'flows', and perhaps subtle shifts in emphasis. But none of that is documented, I think. In this case, I can't detect any difference in meaning, but the verbless form flows better, because a comma interrupts the flow less than a period, and also fewer words are needed. – linguisticturn Apr 22 '18 at 0:44
  • Maybe there is a better way for underlining texts? See meta, you could post an answer (or a request): english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/10255/… – Mari-Lou A Apr 22 '18 at 14:19
  • @mari-lou-a I've looked already, but couldn't find any. It's really a shame, because underlining is used extensively in grammar, and you really want to reserve other kinds of emphasis (e.g. boldfacing) for other purposes. – linguisticturn Apr 22 '18 at 14:37
  • I think our mod, tchrist, knows how to do it, but the problem is that the formatting may not appear on all browsers – Mari-Lou A Apr 22 '18 at 14:46

There are two slightly different words for comparisons of this kind: simile and metaphor. The are easily distinguished.

Simile is always introduced by an adjective of comparison (like) or an adverb of comparison (as). So we could have:

The robber swooped down on the lonely cottage like a wolf on the fold

He grabbed the money as quick as lightening.

But metaphor describes a person or thing as if it really were what it is being compared with.

My nurse is an angel.

Don’t trust that counsellor: he’s a snake in the grass.

So in your example, the description of the teeth is a vivid metaphorical way of describing the teeth.

  • Thanks, this answer is useful to understand the other one :) – Xyna Apr 22 '18 at 0:23
  • @Xyna You’re welcome, Xyna. You can even give it. ✅! – Tuffy Apr 22 '18 at 9:34
  • Unfortunately, the OP cannot UV your answer because they do not have enough rep, they can only accept one answer. See: english.stackexchange.com/help/someone-answers – Mari-Lou A Apr 22 '18 at 14:12
  • @Mari-LouA I don’t mind. I am not looking for credits really. – Tuffy Apr 22 '18 at 14:54
  • @Tuffy Well, I UVd you anyway. :) – linguisticturn Apr 23 '18 at 16:00

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