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Hi!  When I was reading John Steinbeck's America and Americans, I came across the following sentence:

 

(1) An oil company may extend into transportation, or a food-processing firm invest its profits in magazines, but there is one thing the corporation cannot do. (p. 57)

 

I thought the "invest" must be "invests."  I was wondering whether it is a simple mistake or whether it can be acceptable for some reason.

 

I would appreciate your comments!

Original Post

Hi, Yasukotta,

@yasukotta posted:

 

(1) An oil company may extend into transportation, or a food-processing firm invest its profits in magazines, but there is one thing the corporation cannot do.

This is a case of modal verb ellipsis. For the sake of clarity, you can say:

(1) An oil company may extend into transportation, or a food-processing firm may invest its profits in magazines, but there is one thing the corporation cannot do.

@yasukotta posted:

When I was reading John Steinbeck's America and Americans, I came across the following sentence:

(1) An oil company may extend into transportation, or a food-processing firm invest its profits in magazines, but there is one thing the corporation cannot do. (p. 57)

Yes, the key for this kind of ellipsis to work is that there is parallelism (Subject+modal+verb + coordinating conjuntion + Subject+(modal)+verb). However, I wouldn't recommend using it at all.

Hi, Yasukotta and Gustavo—I agree with your analysis of the ellipsis, Gustavo, and with your recommendation that it not be used, at least by learners. This type of ellipsis is a species of the broader type of ellipsis known as Gapping.

Usually, Gapping does not involve ellipsis of a modal only. Steinbeck's sentence works gracefully, in my opinion, since the Gapping renders the second independent clause of a piece with the first, thereby assisting the "but"-clause.

In general, however, it is rather awkward simply to delete a modal from a second independent clause that shares the same modal as the first independent clause. The following examples don't sound very good to me:

(2) ? John will barbecue hamburgers for lunch and Sally make salads.
(3) ? John may fly to Paris and Sally take a boat to China.
(4) ? John should take tennis lessons or Sally learn to fly.

This is a type of ellipsis I "follow" in literature, and I have several specimens to share. One is another Steinbeck example, one involves a phrasal modal, and two have the Gapping of the modal in a coordinate subordinate clause.

(5) "In the morning we will sell the pearl, and then the evil will be gone, and only the good remain." (John Steinbeck, The Pearl)

(6) "In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman; the woman to make the home agreeable to the man." (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)

(7) "I've wished the houses would fall on me, or the stones sink under me." (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin)

(8) "The uproar was appalling, perilous to the ear-drums; one feared there was too much sound for the room to hold—that the walls must give way or the ceiling crack." (Upton Sinclair, The Jungle)

I have just come upon another literary instance of this type of Gapping, involving the ellipsis of a modal only, in a very famous novel published in 1951. In the quotation below, "might" is elided between "the moon" and "go up":

Quote:
"You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy disks, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt."

– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Last edited by David, Moderator

Thank you, David!  The sentence seems to show the contrast between the sky falling and the moon going up, and that might be a factor in the acceptability of the ellipsis?  I'm not sure, but I really appreciate your kindness to offer this instance.   I would like to know if there is any reference book discussing this type of ellipsis.

@yasukotta posted:

The sentence seems to show the contrast between the sky falling and the moon going up, and that might be a factor in the acceptability of the ellipsis? 

That may be, Yasukotta. To me, the reason the ellipsis works so well in that example is that, without the ellipsis, it would be unclear whether "the moon (might) go up in red fire" was the second conjunct of the "that"-clause complementing "feeling." It could be mistaken for another independent clause.

@yasukotta posted:

I'm not sure, but I really appreciate your kindness to offer this instance.   I would like to know if there is any reference book discussing this type of ellipsis.

There are a number of advanced syntax books and articles dealing with Gapping, but I know of none devoted to the type in which the modal of a conjunct clause is the sole element elided. It may also be possible to analyze this as a special type of coordinantion, without considering it ellipsis proper.

In any case, below is yet another literary instance I have come across of the phenomenon. This is the third stanza of John Keat's poem "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819). The example occurs in the final "where"-clause, which contains two conjunct clauses, the second one not including "cannot":

Quote:

"Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow."

- John Keats

Last edited by David, Moderator

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