While watching the Daily Show, a commercial came on. Here is the construction:

"...When the Hawk of Achill took a barrel of John Jameson's whiskey, well that was another matter. But Jameson was generous, the Hawk, greedy, very greedy..."

The issue is "Jameson was generous, the hawk greedy." There is no verb in the second construction, and we are asked to fill in the verb from context. This is a no-no in a generative description of English grammar.

Are these sentences acceptable English?

  1. "The doctor put his gown on the table; the nurse, on the cabinet."
  2. "The soldier eats his bread with cheese; the general, with caviar."
  3. "The soldier eats his bread with cheese; the general, his pita with olives"
  4. "The bum sleeps in the streets; the oil magnate comfortably, without snoring, in a bed with sheets."
  5. "The maid spreads the sheet on the bed; my kitchen knife butter on the bread."
  6. "He pitted the two contestents in battle; she, a date"
  7. "He drove a car; she, a point home."
  8. "The surgeon walks to surgery, quickly, and without thinking about all the patients that he lost over the years; John, on the beach."

Is there a discussion of the rules for mystery implicit verbs? Has anyone encountered an implicit verb construction in a newspaper context?

  • 5
    This sort of verb ellipsis is very commonly discussed in the linguistic literature, and is by no means forbidden by generative grammar. Mar 9, 2012 at 19:41
  • 5
    This kind of suppletion is fairly common, though it is not always possible (not in all of your examples). Where the verb to be supplied is used with a different meaning, it is called syllepsis or zeugma, and it is not standard, but a rhetorical joke that is also not infrequent. // Why do you say that "This is a no-no in a generative description of English grammar"? Where did you read that? Mar 9, 2012 at 19:42
  • 4
    @Cerberus is correct here (+1) except in characterizing it as a rhetorical joke. There are different kinds of zeugma, of which syllepsis is only one example. See this answer for a view of the distinction between the two. The Jameson ad that furnishes the OP's first example is not an attempt at a joke, but a use of ellipsis for rhetorical effect.
    – Robusto
    Mar 9, 2012 at 20:06
  • 3
    Too many commas in your example, otherwise all somewhat acceptable (in 1, did the nurse put her gown on the cabinet or did the doctor put the nurse on the cabinet>, I can't make sense out of 6)
    – Mitch
    Mar 9, 2012 at 21:22
  • 1
    See also: my answer about syllepsis at this related question
    – nohat
    Mar 9, 2012 at 23:37

4 Answers 4


As others have said, there's nothing wrong with the construct of sentence in the ad. It reads gruffly, which works well in the context of the ad. Your sentences, meanwhile, are more of a mixed bag:

The soldier eats his bread with cheese, the general, with caviar.

I have no problem with this one, although, as John and JLG said, a semi-colon should be used after the word cheese.

He drove a car, she, a point home.

This one reads like a clever pun. I'm reminded of Groucho Marx: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

"The surgeon walks to surgery, quickly, and without thinking about all the patients that he lost over the years, John on the beach."

Um, no. It's not wrong per se, but it reads as if you were trying to deliberately stretch the rules. It reads awkward, because the two parts clash as unrelated. Just because you can write this way, doesn't mean you should.

"The doctor put his gown on the table, the nurse, on the cabinet."

Wait... the doctor put the nurse on the cabinet? Then what happened? (This reminds me of some of those humorous newspaper headlines, like "4-H Girls Win Prizes for Fat Calves").

  • Then what happened??! Mar 23, 2012 at 21:32
  • 1
    "Jameson was generous; the hawk, greedy." is a zeugma. "He drove a car; she, a point home." is a deliberately erroneous zeugma called a syllepsis. Nov 21, 2012 at 0:08

I don't know where you get the idea this is a no-no.

It's a textbook example of Conjunction Reduction, a staple of the generative stable of rules since around 1963.

And it's badly punctuated in the transcript; there should be a semicolon after generous, to indicate full stop intonation. That may have confused you. It was spoken, not written, to start with.

  • Thanks! It's a no-no because of the particular way I construct my parse trees--- I center them around the verbs. So new arguments coming later in a separate context require copying the verb context, which is not part of the context free grammar I am using to generate sentences. It's similar to the "did" ambiguity I asked about here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/60105/… .
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 9, 2012 at 23:48
  • Um, I spoke too soon. The examples you gave of "conjunction reduction" are all reducing verb-argument phrases, adverb-like phrases, or adjective-like phrases, all of which are dead easy to do (you just add a recursive rule ADVERB -> ADVERB and ADVERB and likewise for the rest). It is much more difficult to do a reduction on verbs, because they are framed by recursive stuff on both sides, so this causes non-context-freeness in the grammar in general. I take back the thanks--- your answer is no good (I was going to accept it).
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 9, 2012 at 23:51
  • 6
    Are reducing arguments the opposite of oxidizing arguments? I'm afraid I don't understand your comments, and I'm also afraid the way you wanna draw your parse trees is, as always, your responsibiity. And non-context-freeness in the grammar is your requirement, not a property of "the grammar". Mar 9, 2012 at 23:56
  • 1
    Sorry --- reducing an argument is taking "I took the boxes from the plane and the from the trunk of my car to the house" and merging "from the plane and from the trunk of my car" into one structure. It's easy, because they occur next to each other. Even when they are separated, as in, "I took the boxes from the plane to the house and from the trunk to the church", they respect the tree structure of the sentence, so you can make a parse tree. For the Jameson commercial, you can't make a tree, because "Hawk" and "Greedy" attach on opposite sides of "was".
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 10, 2012 at 0:11
  • Just to be clearer: merging arguments into one is the basic operation in a context-free grammar, and when you have Subject1 Verb Object1; Subject2 Object2; Subject3 Object3; Subject4 Object4 sentences, where you are supposed to fill in the verb from the previous context, the grammar is not context free. You need to store the verb, and restore it inbetween the subjects and the objects to make a context free sentence. This is possible, but I wanted to know if it was grammatical, or if this type of thing appears in the New York Times. I don't think it does.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 10, 2012 at 0:13

Verb ellipsis is something I don't know how to formally handle.

The whole point of an ellipsis is that it requires you to guess what the author omitted. I think the guesswork is going to make it hard to concoct formal rules. Sure, in some cases the guess is obvious, but in others there could be many valid possibilities.

Having a sentence where the meaning is unclear is not grammatically incorrect. It could be done deliberately for humorous or stylistic effect. Of course, it could also just be flat out poor writing.

Consider what was (presumably) omitted in some of the examples, shown in bold below:

"Jameson was generous; the Hawk was greedy, very greedy." (omitted verb)

"The soldier eats his bread with cheese; the general eats his bread with caviar." (omitted verb + object)

"He pitted the two contestants in battle; she pitted the two contestants in a date." (omitted verb + object + preposition) *

  • Actually this might not be the right interpretation but it is AN interpretation that still illustrates the point.

As you can see... the more you omit about the sentence, the more someone has to trip over themselves trying to fill in the blanks, and the more ambiguity you introduce.

"The maid spreads the sheet on the bed; my kitchen knife spreads butter on the bread."

The fact that the verb is used in completely different contexts makes it sound completely unnatural. Again, it's not grammatically incorrect, just weird (unless it's being used as a pun or something).

"The surgeon walks to surgery, quickly, and without thinking about all the patients that he lost over the years; John walks on the beach."

This one isn't particularly confusing, since only the verb was omitted, but the inclusion of all the other words makes it sound awkward. The two phrases of the sentence lost their parallelism.


Do you notice how every one of your examples differs from the ad copy? The ad copy contains a linking verb [was], but the verbs in your examples are not linking verbs. Because most of the verbs in your examples (pitted, eat, drove, etc.) take an object, some of your examples end up being nonsensical. In fact, most would be considered runon sentences even if they made sense.

I know this was a transcription of a televised ad, but as John said the comma between "generous" and "the Hawk" should be a semicolon.

  • Yes, exactly, that's why I gave them--- each one tests a different idea about when this construction is allowed. If I knew which were ok, and which are not, I can figure out the general rule.
    – Ron Maimon
    Mar 9, 2012 at 23:48

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