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Home Campus Press The problem with over ellipted sentence constructions

The problem with over ellipted sentence constructions

 

A perplexed Forum member asked recently if it’s possible for the pronoun “his” to be used as subject in a sentence, then wondered if such usage constitutes an inverted sentence.

What confused Justine Aragones was the usage of the pronoun “his” in this statement from a newspaper opinion column: “With every speech, [the public official] seems ready to undermine the hard work of health care and other essential workers; with every impromptu remark, the best of his own appointees. His have not been words of wisdom. His has not been a steady hand.”

I assured Justine that yes, the possessive pronoun “his” can be used as a subject in the sense of “that which belongs to him.” That sense is equivalent to the meaning of the adjective “his,” as in “As to the matter of expertise in viral immunology, his is definitely superior to that of Dr. Barcelon’s.” But in the passage that Justine presented, the “his” usage is very problematic because the antecedent subject it refers to wasn’t always made clear.

 

To pinpoint its problems and fix them, let’s now examine the passage more closely: “With every speech, [the public official] seems ready to undermine the hard work of health care and other essential workers; with every impromptu remark, the best of his own appointees. His have not been words of wisdom. His has not been a steady hand.”

Problem 1: In the first sentence, the second clause — “with every impromptu remark, the best of his own appointees” — borders on the nonsensical. Without a clear antecedent subject, that clause fails to connect grammatically and logically to the preceding clause. Its constituent phrases “with every impromptu remark” and “the best of his own appointees” just float there like rudderless, pilotless seacraft.

That statement would have been crystal-clear and more forceful had the writer prudently provided the missing grammar elements shown in italics in this revision: “With his every speech, [the public official] seems ready to undermine the hard work of health care and other essential workers; with his every impromptu remark, he seems ready as well to undermine the best efforts of his own appointees.”

Note that the phrase “with his” is repeated and the phrase “he seems ready as well to undermine” is added for coherence and logical continuity of the two linked parallel clauses.

Problem 2: These two sentences, “His have not been words of wisdom’“ and “His has not been steady hand,” have been ellipted for dramatic effect and rhetorical flourish. Recall that ellipsis is omitting one or more words that are obviously understood but that must be supplied to make the sentence grammatically complete. In those two ellipted sentences, however, the omitted words are not evident, so the subject “his” in both sentences just can’t latch on to any antecedent subject.

The sense of those two sentences would have been clearer had their subject “his” been paired with the noun “words” and “hand” to become the subjects “his words” and “his hand.” They would then have coherently read as follows: “His words have not been words of wisdom.” “His hand has not been a steady hand.”

In sum, with the suggested fixes above, that whole confusing passage could have been made this clear, coherent, and more forceful: “With his every speech, [the public official] seems ready to undermine the hard work of health care and other essential workers; with his every impromptu remark, he seems ready as well to undermine the best efforts of his own appointees. His words have not been words of wisdom. His hand has not been a steady hand.”

As to Justine’s second question, the answer is “No.” The grammar and syntax problems of the original passage are that of failed elliptical construction, not of failed inverted sentence construction.

Next week: Don’t get caught using double negatives

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at https://josecarilloforum.com, and on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/jacarillo. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com.

 

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