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Ellipsis that results in one word serving as both subject and object
I am “adjective” and I am “present continuous” in one sentence

I was using some exercise equipment the other day and saw the sign:

Stop if you feel faint or pain

It immediately struck me as wrong, because faint and pain seem to force feel to serve two different verb functions. Is that true?

I think correct alternates would be:

Stop if you feel faint or pained

Stop if you feel faintness or pain

Here's a contrived example that exposes the wrongness I detected from it. Imagine you're reaching into a box to feel the objects inside, and you're told:

Stop if you feel happy or noodles

If that doesn't make you smile, you don't live in my world! :)

  • Well, You can feel faint and you can feel pain. So, you can feel faint or pain. For some reason I don't think it would ever be put the other way around though.
    – Phoenix
    Feb 23, 2012 at 6:31
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    @Phoenix I think that's an improper analysis. There is no commutative rule for verbs, and verbs can be used in various ways. Look at my example sentence. You can feel happy, and you can feel noodles, so therefore you can "feel happy or noodles"?
    – ErikE
    Feb 23, 2012 at 6:34
  • @Phoenix And looking closer at your own statements, if "feel pain or faint" can't ever be said, then this exposes the wrongness to even your ears, and violates the reasoning about combining them being valid.
    – ErikE
    Feb 23, 2012 at 7:33
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    Not surprising - these warning labels are often hastily written by people more concerned with litigation than grammar. Some of the warning labels I've seen say, "Stop if you feel pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath," which is more grammatically correct, but rather ironic, because I usually feel shortness of breath after a mere 5 minutes - and that's my whole reason I'm using the machine in the first place.
    – J.R.
    Feb 23, 2012 at 10:16
  • @Phonexif Switching them, "Stop if you feel pain or faint", creates an ambiguity. Does it mean "Stop if you feel (pain or faint)" or "stop if you (feel pain) or (faint)". i.e. is "faint" an adjective or a verb? I suppose you don't need to enjoin someone to stop exercising if he faints, as presumably he will at that point stop whether he wants to or not.
    – Jay
    Feb 23, 2012 at 14:53

2 Answers 2


"Stop if you feel faint or pain" is an example of syllepsis:

A figure of speech in which one word simultaneously modifies two or more other words such that the modification must be understood differently with respect to each modified word; often causing humorous incongruity.

The syllepsis section of wikipedia's zeugma article includes numerous examples of several forms. Both of your suggested revisions correctly improve upon the original wording.

  • In other words, faulty parallelism. :/ Feb 23, 2012 at 7:03
  • Thank you! It's nice to have a name for it. Is one causing the verb to be used transitively and one intransitively?
    – ErikE
    Feb 23, 2012 at 7:26
  • @ErikE - I think that's right, with faint being a predicate adjective (not an object) and pain being a noun (and an object). Feb 23, 2012 at 8:19

I agree: the sentence is awkward because it's imposing double-duty on a word.

I came across a deliberate example like this once in a humor book. It went something like, "On the one hand, Dr Shickley is a careful and thorough researcher. On the other hand he wears a ring."

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    I've come across an example in an Alexander McCall Smith book. She arrived in a fluster and a taxi. Feb 23, 2012 at 8:49
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    "They sought it with thimbles; they sought it with care; They pursued it with forks and hope." —Lewis Carroll Feb 23, 2012 at 12:00
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    "..he hastened to put out the cat, the wine, his cigar and the lamps."- Flanders & Swann, Madeira M'dear
    – Urbycoz
    Feb 23, 2012 at 12:18
  • @Urbycoz, thanks for reminding me of that song. A veritable cornucopia of zeugma. Feb 23, 2012 at 22:39

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