Verbless Sentence (Scesis Onomaton)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Definition

In English grammar, a verbless sentence is a construction that lacks a verb but functions as a sentence. Also known as a broken sentence.

A verbless sentence is a common type of minor sentence. In rhetoric, this construction is called scesis onomaton.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

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  • "Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels."
    (The Doctor in "Blink," Doctor Who, 2007)
  • "Waiter! raw beef-steak for the gentleman's eye--nothing like raw beefsteak for a bruise, sir; cold lamp-post very good, but lamp-post inconvenient."
    (Alfred Jingle in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1837)
  • "Smashed wheels of wagons and buggies, tangles of rusty barbed wire, the collapsed perambulator that the French wife of one of the town's doctors had once pushed proudly up the planked sidewalks and along the ditchbank paths. A welter of foul-smelling feathers and coyote-scattered carrion which was all that remained of somebody's dream of a chicken ranch."
    (Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow, 1962)
  • "A white hat. A white embroidered parasol. Black shoes with buckles glistening like the dust in the blacksmith's shop. A silver mesh bag. A silver calling-card case on a little chain. Another bag of silver mesh, gathered to a tight, round neck of strips of silver that will open out, like the hatrack in the front hall. A silver-framed photograph, quickly turned over. Handkerchiefs with narrow black hems--'morning handkerchiefs.' In bright sunlight, over breakfast tables, they flutter."
    (Elizabeth Bishop, "In the Village." The New Yorker, December 19, 1953)
  • "Paris with the snow falling. Paris with the big charcoal braziers outside the cafes, glowing red. At the cafe tables, men huddled, their coat collars turned up, while they finger glasses of grog Americain and the newsboys shout the evening papers."
    (Ernest Hemingway, The Toronto Star, 1923; By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, ed. by William White. Scribner's, 1967)
  • "It better as a verbless sentence seems to have won a place in correct, if informal, speech. 'I sure hope the market improves.' 'It better.' In fact, it had better might seem excessively formal in such an exchange."
    (E. D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English. Simon & Schuster, 1991)
  • Fowler on the Verbless Sentence
    "A grammarian might say that a verbless sentence was a contradiction in terms; but, for the purpose of this article, the definition of a sentence is that which the OED calls 'in popular use often, such a portion of a composition or utterance as extends from one full stop to another.'

    "The verbless sentence is a device for enlivening the written word by approximating it to the spoken. There is nothing new about it. Tacitus, for one, was much given to it. What is new is its vogue with English journalists and other writers . . ..

    "Since the verbless sentence is freely employed by some good writers (as well as extravagantly by many less good ones) it must be classed as modern English usage. That grammarians might deny it the right to be called a sentence has nothing to do with its merits. It must be judged by its success in affecting the reader in the way the writer intended. Used sparingly and with discrimination, the device can no doubt be an effective medium of emphasis, intimacy, and rhetoric."
    (H.W. Fowler and Ernest Gowers, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1965)
     
  • Henry Peacham on Scesis Onomaton
    "Henry Peacham [1546-1634] both defined and exemplified scesis onomaton: 'When a sentence or saying doth consiste altogether of nouns, yet when to every substantive an adjective is joined, thus: A man faithful in friendship, prudent in counsels, virtuous in conversation, gentle in communication, learned in all learned sciences, eloquent in utterance, comely in gesture, pitiful to the poor, an enemy to naughtiness, a lover of all virtue and goodliness' (The Garden of Eloquence). As Peacham's example demonstrates, scesis onomaton can string together phrases to form an accumulatio . . .."
    (Arthur Quinn and Lyon Rathburn, "Scesis Onomaton." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. by Theresa Enos. Routledge, 2013)
  • Scesis Onomaton in George Herbert's Sonnet "Prayer"
    Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
    God's breath in man returning to his birth,
    The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
    The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
    Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
    Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
    The six-days world transposing in an hour,
    A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
    Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
    Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
    Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
    The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
    Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
    The land of spices; something understood.
    (George Herbert [1593-1633), "Prayer" [I])