Grammaticality: 'Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something'

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Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say somethingPlato

I didn't understand this quote. How do you understand this? Shouldn't there be a verb after 'fools'? I checked many sources and all write exactly the same.

Wistful

Posted 2020-05-18T17:18:32.943

Reputation: 4 155

Answers

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I will now say something because I have to say something.

What you have here is an elliptical sentence. That omission/ellipsis is quite common in speech and informal writing.

This is what the Chicago Manual of Style Guide (17th ed.) says

A grammatical ellipsis (sometimes called an omission) occurs when part of a clause is left understood and the reader or listener is able to supply the missing words. This “recovery” of omitted words is possible because of shared idiomatic knowledge, context, and what’s called the principle of recoverability

  • {he preferred chocolate, she vanilla [preferred is understood in the second clause]}.

A sentence containing such an ellipsis is called an elliptical sentence.

In your case, the listener is expecting a contrast after "Wise men speak ..." and so "speak" is readily understood and implied even when it is omitted.

I got more to say. We can also use commas to indicate elision (yours is a case where a comma is not needed)

A comma is often used to indicate the omission of a word or words readily understood from the context.

  • In Illinois there are seventeen such schools; in Ohio, twenty; in Indiana, thirteen.
  • Thousands rushed to serve him in victory; in defeat, none.

The comma may be omitted if the elliptical construction is clear without it.

  • One student excels at composition, another at mathematics, and the third at sports.
  • Jasper missed her and she him.

@CompuChip said something in the comments, which makes a whole lot of sense. Even though you don't need a comma after "fools", a pause after "fools" is preferred. A pause there creates a somewhat dramatic impact ... and also aids clarity.

AIQ

Posted 2020-05-18T17:18:32.943

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7Though even when omitting the comma in writing, you would still have a short pause there when you read the sentence out loud: "Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools, [pause] because they have to say something". – CompuChip – 2020-05-19T13:40:28.520

@CompuChip I added your comment to my answer, with proper credit of course. – AIQ – 2020-05-19T15:29:00.457

4You say that ellipsis is common in speech and informal writing, but I think it may be even more common in formal writing. Certainly the examples you give have a formal sound, and usually this kind of ellipsis puts demands on the reader/listener that are more expected in formal contexts. – Mark Foskey – 2020-05-19T20:19:59.040

1@MarkFoskey I disagree. Would you write something like "he preferred chocolate, she vanilla" in your PhD dissertation? I would not. I would write "he preferred chocolate, while she preferred vanilla". Ellipsis exists in formal writing, sure. But I don't understand how you say it's more common in formal writing than in speech. When a barista asks me "how are you?" I reply "great, and you?" If you received an email from your department chair, or from your CEO, or the minister, and it said "Hi Mark, how are you? Is there an update on ..." would you say "great, yes, ..."? – AIQ – 2020-05-19T23:55:54.143

I would say "I am just fine/I am very well, thank you for asking ...". Elliptical constructions can be dangerous in legal papers/documents. – AIQ – 2020-05-19T23:55:58.090

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@AIQ: Some kinds of ellipsis are common in informal speech, but others are not. At least in present-day America (not sure about other places and times), Mark Foskey is quite right that "he preferred chocolate, she vanilla" is quite formal (maybe a bit literary?), and is not the sort of thing anyone would say in casual speech, or write in an informal text. (And N.B. that PhD dissertations and legal papers/documents are not the only kind of formal writing. There's more to register than just "formal vs. informal".)

– ruakh – 2020-05-20T18:08:37.280

Another way to express this same thing without omitting a verb, but while keeping some of the sophistication, would be "Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools do so because they have to say something." Using "do so" here is a reference back to what we established was being done in the first clause. – bubbleking – 2020-05-21T01:03:37.970

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Sometimes words are left out to avoid repetition. In your example the verb "speak" is omitted after the subject "fools" to avoid repetition because the verb 'speak' is already mentioned after "wise men".

"Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools speak because they have to say something."

To avoid the repetition of the verb "speak", we can say :

"Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something."

Sandip Kumar Mandal

Posted 2020-05-18T17:18:32.943

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It originally (as written by Tryon Edwards) had a comma after "fools". You can make sense of it as shorthand for "fools talk".

"Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they would like to say something."

This can be found in the misattributed section of Wikiquote's Plato page. Beware of Churchillian Drift.

Also, you generally don't capitalize the letter following a semicolon (as Tryon apparently knew).

Honest Abe

Posted 2020-05-18T17:18:32.943

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