We’d been sat in a booth and eaten

I’m not sure what it’s called, but there’s a sentence structure which seems to cause confusion all round, and if our goal as writers is clarity, needs some thinking about. This is a sentence where the beginning part is reused later on, often after a conjunction. A very simple example would be “I like green eggs and ham.” In this example, readers can immediately tell which part of the sentence is impliedly repeated: effectively, the writer is saying “I like green eggs and [I like] ham.”

It gets a bit more complicated when you extend the sentences. In a recent Friday Fiction story, I wrote:

“The males and females almost indistinguishable: gender no more guarantee of temperament than appearance.”

Now this is arguably a poorly constructed sentence in that the verbs (were / was) are missing; which I excuse as an example of voice, but let’s put those verbs in to save confusion:

“The males and females were almost indistinguishable: gender was no more guarantee of temperament than appearance.”

The second part is where the problem lay, because the implied repetition is pretty long: “gender was no more guarantee of temperament than [gender was guarantee of] appearance.” It works, though. The implied repetition is exact and there’s nothing else it could mean. Sure, it might be an unusual formulation for some readers and we might therefore avoid it if we prioritise clarity above everything, but we don’t have to and it’s not wrong.

Which brings me to the title of this piece, and occasions where it is wrong or, at least, dangerous. The implied repetition intended by the writer is probably “We’d been sat in a booth and [we’d] eaten.” But my brain reads it differently. “We’d been sat in a booth and [we’d been] eaten.” Crikey, I’m thinking, I never saw that coming!

The difficulty here is twofold. First, there’s an alternative way of reading the sentence (which is confusing) and second, there’s a switch from the passive voice to the active one.

We should definitely use these implied repetitions in our writing. It’s hard not to – just look at how many times I’ve done it in this post. But be careful of them – try not to mix active / passive voice, tenses or singular to plural. Make sure the implied repetition is exact (I don’t like it when the implied repetition is a different part of the same verb, eg was to were) and when proof-reading, look for alternative readings that you didn’t intend!

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2 Comments

Filed under Grammar Rules Simplified, Writing

2 responses to “We’d been sat in a booth and eaten

  1. I’ve got a problem with ‘we’d been sat’ without even moving on to the second half of the sentence 😦 Does it mean that someone had seated us in the booth, or does it mean that we had been sitting in a booth?

    • True, Sandra. I believe, although my brain is feeling fried this morning, so I might be wrong, that using “we’d been sat” as a past tense of “to sit” is technically incorrect, although a vernacular character might use it that way. Even if they did, though, the point about the half would still stand. And this is before we decide whether, like Microsoft Word, we have a problem with the passive voice per se.

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