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Elliptical constructions can be used to omit certain words that are inferred by context. For example, “I went swimming, and John went [swimming], too.”

However, can elliptical constructions be used in a list to avoid repetition? I'm writing an essay and would like to use the following list:

....the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary: commitment, drugging, and ECT treatments.

Is it implied from the context that this list really reads as involuntary commitment, involuntary drugging, and involuntary ECT treatments without repeating the word involuntary so many times? Also, is that an improper use of the colon?

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To summarize the comments I had made under the question, the use of an elliptical construction for list items can be ambiguous.

Had I not read this question, I would not have interpreted the following phrase as elliptical:

 involuntary commitment, drugging, and ECT treatments

Instead, I would have considered involuntary as applying only to the first list item.

In order to make it explicit, you can repeat involuntary:

involuntary commitment, involuntary drugging, and involuntary treatments

But if you don't like that repetition, you need to find other ways of constructing the sentence that make the ellipsis clear.

For instance:

These things were involuntary: commitment, drugging, and ECT treatment.


A further comment added more context to the phrase:

the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary: commitment, drugging, and ECT treatments

However, that use of a colon would not normally be considered correct. When you use a colon, it's generally thought that the sentence should sound grammatical if it were replaced with a period and the sentence ended there.

In other words, when considering the appropriateness of the colon, we would look at this:

 ✘ . . . the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary.

But the following would be okay (assuming, of course, the existence of the right words at the start of the sentence):

✔ (Consider) the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary actions: commitment, drugging, and ECT treatments.

But while this sentence is syntactically correct, it is still semantically ambiguous because the list items could be taken to apply to the legalities and inherent assumptions rather than to involuntary actions.


Note that in vertical lists, because of the nature of their presentation, the rule for what precedes a colon is sometimes relaxed:

the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary:

  • commitment
  • drugging
  • ECT treatments

Given this visual presentation, the intended meaning is more clear.

But whether or not this is actually acceptable—as well as how to punctuate the list items—depends on the particular style guide being followed, if any.


Another possibility when it comes to phrasing is the following:

the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary actions such as commitment, drugging, and ECT treatments

Or, if you don't want to add something like actions, you might be able to use a numbered horizontal list:

the legalities and inherent assumptions that serve as the basis for involuntary (1) commitment, (2) drugging, and (3) ECT treatments

  • The option which occurred to me was: commitment, drugging, and ECT treatments - all involuntary. – Ross Murray Dec 6 '18 at 8:26
  • @RossMurray That's a good suggestion in theory, but it's also a bit ambiguous. I can see all involuntary applying only to the ECT treatments rather than to all three items. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Dec 6 '18 at 8:31
  • I am going to agree to disagree. A list has just ended and then a dash has jerked the reader out of the sentence. I see no ambiguity that the word 'all' would then apply to the entire list. It's not a problem in the kind of fiction I write, but granted, I might not dare use it in a Masters' thesis. – Ross Murray Dec 6 '18 at 9:44

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