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interestingly ungrammatical sentence
I unconsciously copyedit books as I read them, and I'm often dismayed at the shoddy punctuation, style, and grammar in many otherwise fine books. But today is the first time in a long time that I've run into a sentence that seemed ungrammatical in a way that wasn't instantly obvious; I had to stop and think to figure out exactly what the error was. (I'm sure anyone who does linguistics for a living could figure it out immediately, but I'm rusty enough that it took me a minute.)

The sentence is in the prologue of Fordlandia, a book about Henry Ford's attempt to build a rubber plantation-cum-Pleasantville in the depths of the Amazon jungle. Describing a set of twisted railroad tracks left in the ruins of Fordlandia, the author writes:

[...] it's bewildering to think what force of nature or how the passing of time could have produced their current mangled state.

When I read this, it seemed like the sentence contained an error in parallelism, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The intended structure seems to be:

It's bewildering to think [[what force of nature] or [how the passing of time] could have produced X].

which looks reasonable at first glance; placing what force of nature and how the passing of time in parallel makes sense on the surface, since they both introduce relative clauses with the same verb phrase:

It's bewildering to think [what force of nature could have produced X] or [how the passing of time could have produced X].

After thinking about it a little longer, though, I'm convinced it really is wrong. Can you figure out the error?

In [what force of nature] could have produced X, the phrase what force of nature acts as the subject of could have produced. But [how the passing of time] could have produced X is actually the wrong structure; it should be how [[the passing of time] could have produced X]. So you can't cut away how the passing of time from its verb phrase in the same way you can cut away what force of nature.

A more correct parallel phrasing would be:

It's bewildering to think how the forces of nature or the passing of time could have produced X.

Current Mood: picky

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(Deleted comment)
tritone From: tritone Date: July 26th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the argument for "how" rather than "what" is that there's no question about which stretch of time caused it; the question is in what way the natural passage of time caused it. But the repetition does sound better.
(Deleted comment)
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 21st, 2010 01:02 am (UTC) (Link)
it is supposed to read ".....what THE force of nature or how the passing of time....."
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