Trent Reznor Award nomination

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It's been a while since we posted a nomination for the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding — I believe that the most recent nomination was in April of 2012.  But here's a worthy suggestion from Laura Bailey:

The source is China Mieville's 2010 novel Kraken, and here's the sentence in a larger context:

DANE WOULD NOT LET LONDONMANCERS REENTER THE RUINED rooms of the kraken church to which he returned. They were not sure of their relationship to him nor he of his to them anymore— were they allies, still? Wati, traumatised and almost unconscious, could not breach the still-extant barriers. Only Billy came with Dane. When they descended, there were others there, though. The last scattered Krakenists, come home, in mourning.

Around the same number as there had been for the service that Billy had witnessed, but that had been just a regular Sabbath, a sermon: this was the last gathering in the world. Those lapsed, busy, usually too tainted by secularism and the exhaustions of everyday life to attend with the regularity the faith they professed would prefer were all here.

A couple of those muscular young men, though most of the enforcers of devotion had been guards, and guarding, and were gone. Mostly these were unremarkable men and women of all types. The end of a church.

I'll leave it as an exercise for the commenters to produce a parse tree.




  1. Guy said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    I admit that took me a while, but the key for me was realizing that "the faith they professed" was subject of "would", and it was not, as I initially tried to read it, that "would prefer" was a clausal complement of "professed" with a relative gap for "faith".

    I didn't have trouble, on first reading, with realizing that I was looking at a giant subject with "were here" as predicate.

  2. Lewis said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 11:53 am

    Lovely sentence! But I can't figure out what the next sentence is saying? Unless a "were" has been omitted by the author? "A couple of those were muscular young men, though…" But that doesn't help the "and guarding" part??

  3. Guy said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    "were all here" as predicate, that is.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    Hey, I read that. I don't remember noticing anything special about that sentence, but it's a sockdolager.

  5. unekdoud said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    In this case, it's also a giant garden path: after the adjectives "lapsed" and "busy" I searched the rest of the sentence for "people" and failed. I expected the whole mess with commas to disambiguate itself after the end of the list, but nope.

    Does "Those lapsed, busy, …" describe one group of people with multiple traits (and how many?), or does it describe multiple groups of people (and how many?) …or is "lapsed" a verb, and the rest of the sentence describe how they lapsed? (It remains a possibility up until the end of the sentence!)

    And then the very next sentence after that tries to pull the same mind games. I can only imagine the novel passing through the editors' automated proofreader and have it outright shut down in disgust.

    TL;DR: Those what? Attend what?

  6. Guy said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 1:23 pm


    It's like "those lapsed, busy, were all
    here". Everything from "usually" to "prefer" is another modifier of "those". At least that's my reading.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    Those who were lapsed;
    Those who were busy;
    Those who were usually too tainted by secularism and the exhaustions of everyday life to attend with the regularity the faith they professed would prefer;
    They were all here.

  8. Adrian said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    Is this considered good prose? I wondered at first if we were dealing with a translation from German, both sentences being quite clunky, and then when I saw the fuller extract I felt that this was just not very good writing.

  9. Jon W said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

    Lewis: The sentence beginning "A couple" has the same structure as the earlier one beginning "Around the same number": it begins with a noun phrase describing the scattered Krakenists present ("Around the same number as there had been", "A couple of those muscular young men") and continues with a "but" or "though" phrase. The meaning of "guards, and guarding" is that most of the church's enforcers had been guards, and had been guarding it when it was attacked, and hence were lost.
    Adrian: To each his taste. I enjoyed the book, and I think it's lovely prose.

  10. Phil Jennings said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 7:30 pm

    "would prefer all were here" instead of "would prefer were all here?"

  11. Boudica said,

    November 13, 2016 @ 9:05 pm

    It took me a while to get that "the faith" is the subject of "would prefer."

  12. JPL said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 1:18 am

    Bathrobe I think has it right: everything between "lapsed" and "prefer" is a relative clause with three coordinate predicates, modifying and specifying the main clause subject "those". But what I like is the double relative clause specification on "regularity": "with the regularity [1] the faith [2] they professed [NP2] would prefer [NP1]", where "they professed [NP2]" is the innermost embedding. The third relative clause predicate "tainted" is a passive participle construction ("too tainted … to attend") with the embedded inf. complement (too [Attrib.] to V), within which that final double embedding occurs. The relativized specification of the unspecified subject "those" is nicely balanced, taking "attend" as the centre; and employing the option the language has of omitting the relative pronouns is a poetic way of slowing down the reader. The writer should be proud of that sentence.

    I hope this verbal description might suggest a possible tree diagram.

  13. peter said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 2:13 am

    @Adrian: It is appalling prose, as bad as the worst of Henry James. The only consolation for lovers of good writing is that, as with James, the books of even the most celebrated of living writers can be justly forgotten after they are dead.

  14. cM said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    I'm with Lewis: Although the sentence that triggered this posting is tricky, I got it on the first read – but what's with the "A couple…" thing?

  15. Bathrobe said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 4:47 am

    Maybe (?):

    "A couple of those (were) muscular young men, though most of the enforcers of devotion had been guards, and guarding, and were gone."

  16. JPL said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 5:23 am

    "A couple of those muscular young men [were there], though most of the …" I have only the text above to go on, but the author seems not to be restricted to using full sentence constructions for text units punctuated by full stops. There are several sentence fragments, e.g., in the "sentence" immediately preceding the one in question: "Around the same number [came] as there had been for the service…." After "but" is a full clause, likewise the parenthetical.

    BTW, I also like the use of pronouns in the "nor" parallel construction, "They were not sure of their relationship to him, nor he of his to them anymore …" with the ellipsis of the "possessed" NP. It looks like this author is doing what any good author should do with the language: exploring its resources.

  17. GH said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 7:51 am

    In this situation I would insert a possibly ungrammatical comma to help with the parsing: "Those lapsed, busy, usually too tainted by secularism and the exhaustions of everyday life to attend with the regularity the faith they professed would prefer, were all here."

    My biggest issue with the sentence is the "usually," which to me conflicts in scope with the generalization of "with regularity." To take a simpler example, "I am usually too busy to attend" is fine, and so is "I am too busy to attend regularly," but I think "I am usually too busy to attend regularly" is very awkward. "Usually" introduces a description of a "typical" instance, but then "regularly" means that part of that description in fact applies to all instances, both typical and atypical.

  18. Lane said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    Roughly right?

    [Those lapsed, busy, [usually [too tainted by secularism and the exhaustions of everyday life to attend [with [the regularity [the faith they professed] would prefer]]]] were all here.]

  19. Robert Coren said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 10:15 am

    Adding "that" after "faith" would help, but not much.

  20. Brett Reynolds said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 11:38 am

    How's this:
    [Clause [Subj:NP those][Mod:VP [H:V lapsed]][Mod:AdjP[H:Adj busy]][Mod:AdjP [Mod:AdvP [H:Adv usually]][H:AdjP[Mod:AdvP [H:Adv too]][H:Adj tainted][Comp:PP by secularism…]][Comp:VP [Mark:Sub to][H:VP_i[H:V attend][Mod:PP[H:P with][Obj:NP [Det:D the][H:N regularity][Mod:Clause_rel [Subj:NP [Det:D the] [H:N faith_j][Mod:Clause_rel they professed GAP_j]][H:VP [H:V would][Comp:VP prefer GAP_i]]]]]]]][H:VP[H:V were][Mod:D all][Comp:PP [H:P here]]]]

  21. Brett Reynolds said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 11:46 am

    Small change to the indices
    [Clause [Subj:NP those][Mod:VP [H:V lapsed]][Mod:AdjP[H:Adj busy]][Mod:AdjP [Mod:AdvP [H:Adv usually]][H:AdjP[Mod:AdvP [H:Adv too]][H:Adj tainted][Comp:PP by secularism…]][Comp:VP [Mark:Sub to][H:VP[H:V attend][Mod:PP[H:P with][Obj:NP [Det:D the][H:N regularity_i][Mod:Clause_rel [Subj:NP [Det:D the] [H:N faith_j][Mod:Clause_rel they professed GAP_j]][H:VP [H:V would][Comp:VP prefer GAP_i]]]]]]]][H:VP[H:V were][Mod:D all][Comp:PP [H:P here]]]]

    [(myl) Or as a tree, here.]

  22. Laura Bailey said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 12:52 pm

    I think it's wonderful prose and tweeted several other lovely snippets before getting to this one, but he is perhaps an acquired taste. He plays around with language a bit and knows his linguistics (read Embassytown if you do like him) so I strongly suspect this is absolutely done like that on purpose. It took me a while to parse, but I got there and it is grammatical. The tricky bit, I think, is [that the faith [(that) they professed] would prefer]. Once you get that you're more or less there.

  23. cameron said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

    I haven't read Kraken or Embassytown but the central character in one of Miéville's books that I have read, The Scar, is a linguist.

  24. Bloix said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    Lapsed is generally not a noun. Neither is busy.
    "Those lapsed were all here." Not acceptable.
    "Those lapsed, busy were all here." Even less acceptable.
    You can say, and perhaps someone who knows more than me can say why, "the lapsed" and "the busy" and they will function as nouns.
    "The lapsed and the busy were all here."
    But not "those lapsed."
    So he could have written, "The lapsed, the busy, those usually too tainted etc."
    But what he's written is not grammatical English.

    [(myl) The third of the parallel modifiers — "too tainted by secularism" — makes it clear that they're meant to be parallel instances of reduced relative clauses, not head nouns: "those [who are] lapsed, [who are] busy, [who are] too tainted by secularism".

    The result may be confusing but it's not ungrammatical. Thus from Google Books:

    The poorer recollections of the war fall usually into one of two headings: those too narrow and those too broad.
    These divisions stood roughly for those too young to work, those of working age, and those too old to work.
    Those close to the patient may also be having these or similar concerns, or be having them when the patient is not.
    For that reason, in recent years interest has focused on studies of exotic nuclei, particularly those far from the valley of stability.


  25. Chris C. said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

    @Bloix — "Lapsed" is indeed an acceptable noun. It's a reasonable translation of Latin "lapsi", the treatment of whom was at issue in the Donatist schism in the 4th-8th centuries.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 14, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

    Bloix: It's easy to find hits on "those involved were". Many are in constructions such as "the rights of those involved were" and "n% of those involved were", but many are parallel to "Those lapsed were all here."

  27. Bloix said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 12:53 am

    Chris C – I have no problem with a specialized meaning in which "lapsed" functions as a noun. That's not what is meant here.
    Jerry Friedman – "those involved" is fine. "those involved in the project should go to room 23."
    And perhaps there are other examples. But generally, no.
    "Those tired need sleep." No. "Those calm will do better than those frantic." No.
    "Those lapsed" is not idiomatic English.

  28. GH said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 5:19 am


    I don't think "lapsed" or "busy" function as nouns in this sentence. I read "Those lapsed" as "Those [who were] lapsed," (just like "those [who are] involved"), and find it fairly standard though somewhat clipped. I note that this sort of bridging sequence is often elided in English:

    "Oh, hear us when we cry to thee, / For those [who are] in peril on the sea!"
    "Those [who were] canny enough to recognize the opportunity made millions."
    "The figure [that is] seen here…"
    "You can throw away those [that are] unwanted."


  29. Bathrobe said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 5:53 am

    The use of past participles after nouns seems to be an area of English where the rules aren't very clear. Some are ok, others aren't.

    Transitives seem to be better than intransitives.

    Those broken by life…
    Those forgotten in the roll call of time…
    Those lost in the melee…
    Those hit by flying shrapnel…
    Those targeted by terrorists…
    Those killed in battle…
    Those left behind by events…

    Intransitives seem to work, too, but only in some cases.

    Those fallen by the wayside …
    Those drowned at sea..

    But I agree that "those lapsed", in which "lapse" is intransitive, is forced.

  30. Bloix said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 8:26 am

    Bathrobe – where the past participle is followed by a modifying phrase the use of "those" is more likely be acceptable.

    "Those fallen by the wayside deserve our help." Ok
    "Those fallen deserve our help." No.

    "Those drowned at sea remain in our hearts." Ok.
    "Those drowned remain in our hearts." No.

    In the Mieville sentence, lapsed and busy are not followed by modifying phrases. Instead we have two unmodified past participle, and one modified one, which seems to work better than the other two:
    Those lapsed -no
    Those busy -no
    Those usually too tainted to etc – perhaps ok

  31. dainichi said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    @myl: reduced relative clauses

    Is that the common analysis of this? My intuition tells me this is something else, something about pre-modifiers becoming post-modifiers in certain cases:

    1. The modifier itself is post-modified, or otherwise too complex to be a pre-modifier. "A clever man", but "A man too clever for his own good".
    2. The modified doesn't allow pre-modification at all. Not *"Involved those", but "those involved".

    I never thought of these as "reduced relative clauses". After all, we never say "A man clever". Which relative clauses can be reduced and which can't?

    What annoys me the most is the "," instead of an "and" or "or" between "busy" and "usually". Sure, lists without a conjunction can be nice and poetic sometimes, but here it's just adding to the efforts required to parse an already hard-to-parse sentence. (Hm… that was a post-modified pre-modifier there, wasn't it. Maybe that's why I had to put in those hyphens…)

    [(myl) Certainly CGEL would call these "post-head modifiers of a fused determiner-head" — see here for discussion of another example.]

  32. loonquawl said,

    November 15, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    @ Adrian
    There might be something in your hunch about the german-ness of the whole thing: German is my native language, and i parsed the paragraph without problem, had a hard time figuring out what the noteworthyness even was.
    While i enjoy reading english fiction in general (it seems somehow 'faster' – there are some papers that give credence to this hunch), i like Mieville in general, beginning with Perdido Street Station so i am not sure whether my understanding is based in the familiarity with the author, or whether the somehow more german-palatable prose of the author led to me favoring his works.

  33. Stan Carey said,

    November 16, 2016 @ 6:37 am

    Miéville's book is also interesting linguistically for its use of gender-neutral henchpersons and themself.

  34. DWalker07 said,

    November 16, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    Those broken by life…
    Those forgotten in the roll call of time…

    Reminds me of "Give me your tired, your poor, …." Tempest-tost indeed!

  35. Rodger C said,

    November 17, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." I suddenly wonder whether these are three parallel noun phrases or three parallel adjectives modifying "masses."

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