English in Use/Figures of Syntax

English in Use
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A figure of syntax is an intentional deviation from the ordinary construction of words. The principal figures of syntax are five; namely, el-lip'-sis, ple'-o-nasm, syl-lep'-sis, en-al'-la-ge, and hy-per'-ba-ton.



Ellipsis is the omission of some word or words which are necessary to complete the construction, but not necessary to convey the meaning. Such words are said, in technical phrase, to be understood.

Of compound sentences, a vast many are more or less elliptical. Sometimes, for brevity's sake, even the most essential parts of a simple sentence, are suppressed: as,

  • "But more of this hereafter."—Harris's Hermes, p. 77.
  • This means, "But I shall say more of this hereafter."
  • "Prythee, peace."—Shak.
  • That is, "I pray you, hold you your peace."

There may be an omission of any of the parts of speech, or even of a whole clause, when this repeats what precedes. But the omission of mere articles or interjections can scarcely constitute a proper ellipsis, because these parts of speech ought to be expressed.

Of the article

  • "A man and [a] woman."
  • "The day, [the] month, and [the] year."
  • "She gave me an apple and [a] pear, for a fig and [an] orange."—Jaudon's Gram., p. 170.

Of the noun

  • "The common [law] and the statute law."
  • "The twelve [apostles]."
  • "The same [man] is he."
  • "One [book] of my books."
  • "A dozen [bottles] of wine."
  • "Conscience, I say; not your own [conscience], but [the conscience] of the other."—1 Cor., x, 29.
  • "Every moment subtracts from [our lives] what it adds to our lives."—Dillwyn's Ref., p. 8.
  • "Bad actions mostly lead to worse" [actions].—Ib., p. 5.

Of the adjective

  • "There are subjects proper for the one, and not [proper] for the other."—Kames.
  • "A just weight and [a just] balance are the Lord's."—Prov., xvi, 11.

True ellipses of the adjective alone, are but seldom met with.

Of the pronoun

  • "Leave [you] there your gift before the altar, and go [you] your way; first be [you] reconciled to your brother, and then come [you] and offer [you] your gift,"—Matt., v, 24.
  • "Love [you] your enemies, bless [you] them that curse you, do [you] good to them that hate you."—Ib., v. 44.
  • "Chastisement does not always immediately follow error, but [it] sometimes comes when [it is] least expected."— Dillwyn, Ref., p. 31.
  • "Men generally put a greater value upon the favours [which] they bestow, than upon those [which] they receive."—Art of Thinking, p. 48.
  • "Wisdom and worth were all [that] he had."—Allen's Gram., p. 294.

Of the verb

  • "The world is crucified to me, and I [am crucified] to the world."—Gal., vi, 14.
  • "Hearts should not [differ], though heads may, differ."—Dillwyn, p. 11.
  • "Are you not much better than they" [are]?—Matt., vi, 26.
  • "Tribulation works patience; and patience [works] experience; and experience [works] hope."—Romans, v, 4.
  • "Wrongs are engraved on marble; benefits [are engraved] on sand."—Art of Thinking, p. 41.
  • "To whom thus Eve, yet sinless" [spoke].—Milton.

Of the participle

  • "That [being] over, they part."
  • "Animals of various natures, some adapted to the wood, and some [adapted] to the wave."—Melmoth, on Scripture, p. 13.
  • "His knowledge [being] measured to his state and place, His time [being] a moment, and a point [being] his space."—Pope.

Of the adverb

  • "He can do this independently of me, if not [independently] of you."
  • "She shows a body rather than a life; a statue, [rather] than a breather."—Shak., Ant. and Cleo., iii, 3.

Of the conjunction

  • "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, [and] joy, [and] peace, [and] long suffering, [and] gentleness, [and] goodness, [and] faith, [and] meekness, [and] temperance."—Gal., v, 22.

The repetition of the conjunction is called polysyndeton; and the omission of it, asyndeton.

Of the preposition

  • "It shall be done [on] this very day."
  • "We shall set off [at] some time [in] next month."
  • "He departed [from] this life."
  • "He gave [to] me a book."
  • "We walked [through] a mile."
  • "He was banished [from] the kingdom."—W. Allen.
  • "He lived like [to] a prince."—Wells.

Of the interjection

  • "Oh! the frailty, [oh!] the wickedness of men."
  • "Alas for Mexico! and [alas] for many of her invaders!"

Of phrases or clauses

  • "The active commonly do more than they are bound to do; the indolent [commonly do] less" [than they are bound to do].
  • "Young men, angry, mean less than they say; old men, [angry, mean] more" [than they say].
  • "It is the duty of justice, not to injure men; [it is the duty] of modesty, not to offend them."—W. Allen.



Pleonasm is the introduction of superfluous words: as,

  • "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it."—Gen., ii, 17.

This figure is allowable only, when it abruptly introduces an emphatic word, or repeats an idea to impress it more strongly: as,

  • "He that has ears to hear, let him hear."—Bible.
  • "All you inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth."—Id.
  • "There shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down."—Id.
  • "I know you who you are."—Id.

A pleonasm is sometimes impressive and elegant; but an unemphatic repetition of the same idea, is one of the worst faults of bad writing.



Syllepsis is agreement formed according to the figurative sense of a word, or the mental conception of the thing spoken of, and not according to the literal or common use of the term: as,

  • "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld his glory."—John, i, 14.
  • "Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them."—Acts, viii, 5.
  • "The city of London have expressed their sentiments with freedom and firmness."—Junius, p. 159.
  • "And I said [to backsliding Israel,] after she had done all these things, turn you to me; but she returned not: and her treacherous sister Judah saw it."—Jer., iii, 7.
  • "And he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder."—Mark, iii, 17.
  • "While Evening draws her crimson curtains round."—Thomson, p. 63.
  • "The Thunder raises his tremendous voice."—Id., p. 113.



Enallage is the use of one part of speech, or of one modification, for another. This figure borders closely on solecism. There are, however, several forms of it which can appeal to good authority: as,

  • "You know that you are Brutus, that say this."—Shak.
  • "They fall successive[ly], and successive[ly] rise."—Pope.
  • "Than whom [who] a fiend more fell is nowhere found."—Thomson.
  • "Sure some disaster has befell" [befallen].—Gay.
  • "So furious was that onset's shock, destruction's gates at once unlock" [unlocked].—Hogg.



Hyperbaton is the transposition of words: as,

  • "He wanders earth around."—Cowper.
  • "Rings the world with the vain stir."—Id.
  • "Whom therefore you ignorantly worship, him declare I to you."—Acts, xvii, 23.
  • "'Happy', says Montesquieu, 'is that nation whose annals are tiresome.'"—Corwin, in Congress, 1847.

This figure is much employed in poetry, but care should be taken lest it produce ambiguity or solecism.