I've currently reading Neal Stephenson's book "The System of the World", and there have been multiple instances of him using a sentence structure with "because" that seems strange.

As an example, one sentence of the form in question is:

Jack was silent for a while, because alert.

I would normally expect to see this written something like:

Jack was silent for a while, because he was alert.

That is, he seems to omit repeating the subject. Is this structure valid? I read quite a bit, but can't recall ever seeing anyone else do this.

Editing to add another example of this structure, which I believe is now the third or fourth time I've seen it in this book:

Upon entering the Chapel, every denizen of Newgate stops in his tracks for a few moments because staggered by a blast of light, a sort of optical fanfare.

  • The context, with censorship: "There were bonfires, fist-fights, and dogs sniffing each other in Charing Cross, and Jack was silent for a while, because alert. But Roger's Jack, Daniel, and Isaac..." I still don't understand why Stephenson did that sentence. Haven't read this book but I've read others and I've seen nothing like that. – Jeremy Oct 7 '11 at 4:33
  • Both of these passages work even better when because is elided in favor of a comma, though it would leave the causal connection implied at best; is that true in all such cases? – eswald Nov 15 '12 at 22:53

It is grammatically incorrect, because the clause has no subject. Of course it is not essential to always be strictly grammatically correct. People often violate the rules for effect. The problem is when someone violates the rules for no apparent reason.

In this case I don't see how it achieves any useful effect, but I'm just looking at one sentence out of context.

I can't think of any other examples of this sort of construction off the top of my head, other than from people who where obviously struggling with the language.

  • It’s funny. You can say Jack was silent for a while, and alert or Jack was horizontal for a while, but alert or even Jack was silent for a while, and thus alert. I’m not sure what it is about because that makes it so powerfully wrong here (and it definitely offends my ears too). – Jason Orendorff Oct 6 '11 at 23:52
  • Of course it's grammatically correct. As Barrie says, we use ellipsis a great deal in conversation. I agree that this example is awkward, but it is certainly not ungrammatical. – Colin Fine Oct 7 '11 at 9:46
  • @Colin: To say "people do this frequently" and "this is correct" are not the same thing. Some rules are arbitrary and can only be defined by common usage -- like the definition of a word. But other rules are based on logical consistency. Having no subject in a clause is a logical inconsistency. – Jay Oct 7 '11 at 16:26
  • @Jason: Hmm, I don't think "Jack was silent for a while, and alert" is grammatically correct. "Jack was silent and alert for a while" would certainly be correct. But you can't just rearrange words in a sentence without changing meaning. – Jay Oct 7 '11 at 16:27
  • @Jay That’s surprising to me. What did you think about silent for a while, but alert? And what do you think about these examples? 1. I sleep only with difficulty; it is cold at night, and damp. 2. I am angry at men, and mistrustful. Both come from COCA. They strike me as impeccable. – Jason Orendorff Oct 7 '11 at 18:24

This is an example of ellipsis, the omission of a word or words from a sentence. We use it all the time in conversation. There is nothing ungrammatical in your example, but the extent to which it might be effective in a novel (which I take ‘The System of the World’ to be) more properly falls under the heading of literary criticism.

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    Are there not patterns of ellipsis which are standard and others which are not? This example certainly offends my ears. – z7sg Ѫ Oct 6 '11 at 19:27
  • @z7sg - I don't remember the passage, but Jack is a C16th century pirate so Stephenson might be trying to make him sound authentic. – mgb Oct 6 '11 at 20:16
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    Aural offence is not a sound basis for grammatical analysis. Some forms of ellipsis can lead to ambiguity, as in 'John likes Mary more than Peter' and these are best avoided. That apart, I'm afraid I can't provide any relevant generalisation. – Barrie England Oct 6 '11 at 20:47
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    I think this is ellipsis taken too far. I had to re-read the sentence a couple of times, and even after reading the suggested expansion, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around its meaning. So in the sense that it fails to get its meaning across effectively, it's not a valid construction. – Marthaª Oct 6 '11 at 20:52
  • @Martin: this isn't a spoken line, so that wouldn't be the intent of it. As I mentioned, he's used an identical structure multiple times in the book, and it's bothered me every time it's appeared. I'll see if I can find another instance of it from the book to edit into my question. – Chad Birch Oct 6 '11 at 20:56

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