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... ... For one trembling second he hesitated. Caution murmured: it could be a trick, a lure, a trap. But instinct, overwhelming instinct, told him that this was not Dark Magic. He set off in pursuit.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

"Caution murmured: it could be a trick, a lure, a trap" doesn't look like a complete sentence. In my opinion, it should be: "Caution is murmured: it could be a trick, a lure, a trap."

How should we understand it correctly?

  • Isn't "Caution is murmured" wrong anyway? It would be, "A caution was murmured", surely? – Harry Johnston Nov 30 '19 at 21:10
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It is fine, "Caution murmured ..." is being used as a figure of speech. I believe it's called a personification. A personification is "a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is endowed with human qualities or abilities." "Caution" here is being treated like a human being, and it whispered to him that he was about to fall into a trap.

Example: That kitchen knife will take a bite out of your hand if you don't handle it safely.

The second last sentence uses one too: "But instinct ... told him ..."

Here is a list of examples of personification.

I however don't understand the absence of a conjunction in the latter part. To me, it seems it needs an "or" before the last element "a trap".


Edit: Response to my query about the sentence not using a conjunction.

James K and Jason Bassford explain in the comments that the absence/omission of "or" is most likely intentional. I am quoting them here just in case the comments are removed.

"The list is truncated because Harry stops worrying about the possibilties and stops thinking mid-way through the list and acts on instinct." - James K

"Omitting the comma there is a stylistic technique called asyndeton." - Jason Bassford

Also, CJ Dennis points out that including the "or" would change the feeling of the sentence: "Using "or" would reduce the impact of the sentence."

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    I think the missing "or" is intentional. We always see from Harry's point of view, and here it gives the impression of his thought processes. The list is truncated because Harry stops worrying about the possibilties and stops thinking mid-way through the list and acts on instinct. – James K Nov 30 '19 at 9:46
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    Omitting the comma there is a stylistic technique called asyndeton. It could also be considered a specific form of acceptable comma splice. – Jason Bassford Nov 30 '19 at 15:27
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    I think the list is meant to provide equivalencies rather than alternatives. A trick, in other words a lure, in other words a trap. – Zachiel Nov 30 '19 at 19:36
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    Including the "or" would change the feeling of the sentence. "trick", "lure", and "trap" are being used as rough synonyms for effect. Each one builds on the previous one. It's a trick to lure him into a trap! Using "or" would reduce the impact of the sentence. – CJ Dennis Dec 1 '19 at 1:30
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    I've come across copy-editors who would insert an "or" and thereby ruin the effect. The impact of the sentence comes partly because you can read it with an ellipsis at the end; not only might it be a trick, a lure, or a trap, it might be one of several other unspeakable things as well. In that sense, the answer to the question is that the sentence is indeed incomplete -- deliberately so. – Michael Kay Dec 2 '19 at 8:28
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There are voices in his brain: Two of them are called "caution" and "instinct". The voice called "caution" murmured: It could be a trick, a lure, a trap.

It is a complete sentence, once you realise that "caution" here is an actual actor with a voice.

"A caution is murmured" would make sense, but much less: It would be similar to "Someone murmurs a warning".

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    It's extremely astute to point out that the "Caution" in the sentence is not necessarily a personification of the quality "caution". Harry has a "caution voice" in his brain; indeed humans literally arguably have "centers" in their brain ("caution systems", "sex systems" etc.) and it would be perfectly natural to talk about those actual literal things; it's actually not a personification of the general quality caution. Good call! – Fattie Dec 2 '19 at 13:25

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