English language

Headline shorthand

Q: I’m using Woe is I in a writing class I’m taking, which made me think of asking you about a question I’m keen on solving. The New York Times recently published an op-ed article by Warren Buffett about the advantages of buying American stocks despite the economic turmoil. I take issue with the headline: “Buy American. I Am.” I believe the second part should be “I did” or “I will” or even “I do.” However, no one in my class agrees. Am I wrong in thinking there’s a grammatical error here?

A: When Times editors headlined Warren Buffett’s opinion piece “Buy American. I Am,” they were using a kind of shorthand, being elliptical rather than completing the second verb phrase. They didn’t need to [that is, to complete the verb phrase].

Did you notice something just now? If you ignore the bracketed remark above, you’ll see that I didn’t complete my second verb phrase either: “They didn’t need to … ”

When you’re using the same verb in subsequent clauses or sentences, it’s all right to be elliptical (to omit part of a sentence’s structure), even if the form of the verb changes.

Readers and listeners will make the connection for themselves, mentally finishing the sentence: “I am [buying American].” So you can leave the second verb phrase unfinished, and no one will assume that it has to take the same form as the first: “I do [buy American].”

The sentences would have been parallel if the headline had read: “Buy American. I do,” but that wasn’t Buffett’s point. He meant that he’s buying American stocks NOW, not that he does this as a general rule. Same with “I will” or “I did” – those don’t convey his meaning.

We speak and write this way all the time, even in the best English. In the following examples, the omitted parts of the verb phrases are in brackets: “Have you gone yet? I soon will [go]” … “He says he’ll study but so far he hasn’t [studied]” … “Let’s visit Spain unless you already have [visited Spain]” … “We never paid because we didn’t need to [pay]” … “She hasn’t written but she plans to [write]” … “I told you, didn’t I [tell you]?”

Notice that many of the omissions happen when auxiliary verbs (“have,” “will,” “be,” “do”) or infinitives are involved. Are the omissions legit? Yes, indeed. As The Oxford English Grammar points out, “Elliptical sentences are incomplete sentences, but they are perfectly normal and acceptable.”

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