Consider the following sentence:
The baker may seem to be a gentleman, the butcher may seem to be a rascal, and the candlestick maker may seem to be a fool.
Since the verb phrase “may seem to be” is pretty long, I might want to elide “may seem to be”. Can I use gapping commas?
The baker may seem to be a gentleman, the butcher, a rascal, and the candlestick maker, a fool.
My concern is that the gapping commas occur in a series that is punctuated with commas. Is it grammatical? Is there a better alternative to using gapping commas here?
Yes, you can write it that way, sort of. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of using gapping commas in that sentence, only the execution.
In that sentence, since the items you list contain internal commas (i.e., the gapping commas), you would use semicolons to separate the list items themselves instead of commas, so it would appear as follows:
“The baker may seem to be a gentleman; the butcher, a rascal; and the
candlestick maker, a fool.”
For more information on how to use semicolons in this way, please refer to the following and scroll down to number three:
That said, you could also write it without the gapping commas at all as there is well-established precedent for doing so when what is being implied is the verb alone, so it would appear:
“The baker may seem to be a gentleman, the butcher a rascal, and the
candlestick maker a fool.”
An extremely famous example of this is found in John Keats’ often quoted words from “Ode on a Grecian Urn“:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
The fact that the verb is missing between “truth” and “beauty,” thus tacitly borrowing it from the main clause, is why a comma is appropriate after “truth” instead of a semicolon or period.
By the way, another example of what you’re doing is the following Twix commercial:
If you Google the ad’s hook “as much in common as you a mortician and me an undertaker,” you will see that it sometimes is written with gapping commas and sometimes not, just like no gapping comma appears between “sometimes” and “not” in the preceding clause.