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This sentence is about the battle of Agincourt, and how the combat involved lifting up the visors on enemy soldiers' helmets to expose their faces. It reads

That's how hundreds of men died; their last sight on earth a dagger's point.

It sounds a little awkward to me, but maybe I'm just not familiar enough with all the nuances of this writing style. Maybe it's grammatically correct, but to me I think I would add a "was" before "dagger's point"

Question: Is this an example of the author taking creative liberty with the sentence structure, or does this sentence structure belong to an existing convention, and if so what is that convention? Is it conventional to have an implied was?

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    Perhaps add a comma after earth, but otherwise it's fine as written.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 3, 2018 at 4:42
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    @Lawrence This is spot on (including the comma). The grammar is fine.
    – Tuffy
    Aug 3, 2018 at 5:41
  • Not even a comma is needed. It works for me the way it is. The "elided," "implied" or "missing" word, if any, is not was but being. HTH.
    – Kris
    Aug 3, 2018 at 6:39
  • @Kris being would fit better with a comma in place of the semicolon. With the given punctuation (with or without the extra comma after earth), was fits better.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 3, 2018 at 7:08
  • @Lawrence The writer's intent was being not was, the second clause extends the first, it's not entirely independent. It is meant to add poignancy to the first (main) clause.
    – Kris
    Aug 3, 2018 at 7:10

2 Answers 2

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I don't think that you can use was here—at least not unambiguously.

Looking only at the sentence itself (because there is no other context), that's can either stand for that was or that is.

If it stands for that is, then adding was wouldn't be correct; nor would adding is be correct.

The use of the semicolon in this construction, and how the text that comes after it is phrased, is suggestive of two independent clauses. Except that the second part doesn't work on its own. (Which is why you think that was should be added.)

But I believe the sentence can be tweaked to clear up the issue:

That's how hundreds of men died: with their last sight on earth being a dagger's point.

I replaced the semicolon with a colon (an em dash could also have been used), making it clear that the second part of the sentence is not an independent clause. I then added with, as that better serves to define what came before, and used being to get around the problem with tense (because it works equally with either that was or that is).


Update: To more specifically address the question, I do think that some small liberties are being taken—but the question is if they are acceptable or not. It's a style choice to allow the second clause that can be considered incorrect in some strict interpretations.

Nobody is failing to understand the sentence, and modifying it will change its emotional reading, so it works at that level. You really can't know if you can omit such words in this type of situation. It's a matter of style and personal choice. (Assuming it's intentional in the first place.)

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  • I think the OP meant adding was after earth. That's not problematic.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 3, 2018 at 5:10
  • @Lawrence I think Jason makes a good case. Just not sure I agree with the colon.
    – Mr Lister
    Aug 3, 2018 at 6:44
  • While this certainly addresses the grammar of the sentence, it has to be said that the result is nowhere near as immediate and powerful as the original
    – user184130
    Aug 3, 2018 at 7:12
  • That is certainly interesting, and I thank you for explaining that far, but I'm still a little confused. If the writer isn't using any creative liberties and the sentence is fine grammatically, then how do we know whether or not we can omit a word like being or was? Aug 3, 2018 at 10:06
  • @ArashHowaida I have updated my answer. In short, if it's intentional, it's a matter of style. Aug 3, 2018 at 13:19
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That sentence, without "was," is a fine example of potent phrasing. "Be" verb forms are common and motionless. "Is" and "was" are often omitted (where they are understood or assumed) in every form of writing and speech, from poetry to technical papers.

A little googling will turn up examples. Often in parallel constructions, used to emphasize the contrast between ideas, a second "be" verb is omitted:

"To err is human, to forgive [is] divine."

Check "ellipses" or "elliptical construction" for more examples.

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