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In this sentence from Wuthering Heights

I declined joining their breakfast, and, at the first gleam of dawn, took an opportunity of escaping into the free air, now clear, and still, and cold as impalpable ice

Do the adjectives "clear", "still" and "cold" refer to "ice" which is used as a comparison to the air? Or is it only the adjective "cold" that refers to ice because it is preceded by a comma which separates it from the adjectives? What if the sentence went like this

I declined joining their breakfast, and, at the first gleam of dawn, took an opportunity of escaping into the free air, now fragrant, and light, and cold as impalpable ice

Would you say that it is clear that "cold" only refers to the phrase "as impalpable ice" or is it possible that a reader would think all those adjectives are like impalpable ice?

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What is impalpable ice? –  tchrist Jan 29 '13 at 2:17
    
Unable to be felt? –  user36521 Jan 29 '13 at 2:21
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It's all about the mental imagery, and it's irrelevant which meaning it takes (since it can take either), so long as it helps the reader paint a vision that he can be immersed in. Unfortunately, as one of those readers, I have been zapped back into reality by the term impalpable ice. Huh? Stand back! Bring my laptop! Let me get to the internet as quickly as I can. –  Jim Jan 29 '13 at 3:15
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@user36521 Long discussions in the comments section is frowned upon on the SE sites. I have posted a question, come and convince me there :). –  terdon Jan 29 '13 at 3:20
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dictionary.die.net describes impalpable as "Not palpable; that cannot be felt; extremely fine, so that no grit can be perceived by touch. ``Impalpable powder.'' So I guess the writer is saying the air is like very thin ice, frosty. Okay, thanks, terdon. –  user36521 Jan 29 '13 at 3:22

3 Answers 3

It's a matter of perception.

Either could apply.

But, the fact that both clear and still have some likelihood of referring to ice may be purposeful. But, there is no way to tell for certain what the writer had in mind from this extract alone. A statistical survey of their other work or a familiarity with their style(s) may help. Or not.

Note that "cold as ice" would be commonly used.

"Still as ice" makes sense but is unusual (says I, without checking Google's NGrams).

"Clear as ice" would be somewhat common usage.

Overall, if one had to guess yea or nay, and given that a sneak Gargoyling shows that it is from Wuthering heights, chapter 3 , I'd say it was probably intended that the adjectives all referred to ice or at least were intended to carry some degree of association.

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What? You mean this is not their own quote, but was given without due attribution?? That is . . . not right. –  tchrist Jan 29 '13 at 2:20
    
A sneal Gargoyling? So you think all the adjectives refer to ice? –  user36521 Jan 29 '13 at 2:23
    
@user36521 - I had no problem philosophically with the original quote not being attributed. The question being asked made it obvious that it was not his material There was no plagiarism. However, attribution would have been useful, along with a link tp the specific passage, so that it could be read in context more easily. –  Russell McMahon Jan 29 '13 at 12:38

Grammatically, it's possible to interpret it either way;

The [NP1], now [adj1], and [adj2], and [adj3] as [NP2]

Always means that the thing NP1 is described by each of the three adjectives, but whether it was comparably as much as as the thing NP2 for all three or just the third is not clear.

The reader will be pointed toward one reading or the other by context.

In cases where we need to be extremely clear as a matter of practical concern, this would be a bad sentence. It would be poor writing to write an instruction manual with such an ambiguity.

Such ambiguities can also jar on the reading. Generally this will happen more when the first reading is one we decide is wrong, and we return. There's little risk of that here, because neither reading leads us to a nonsensical interpretation (on this point, anyway). In rare occasions, such ambiguity can strengthen a sentence or let it allow for humour.

The interesting thing here, is that while your question suggests that we might interpret the second differently to the first—by deciding that fragrant and light don't belong with ice—and while you are probably correct for many readers' interpretation at least, truly cold is the adjective that least belongs.

If something is impalpable then how on earth can it be cold? Or if by some technical argument you could allow something to be both cold and impalpable, how could we know it was cold? Or how could we experience it, so as to compare another coldness?

Of course we can't, and logically it's utter rot. Yet the sentence works. If any of these adjectives belong with impalpable, it's clear and still. Somehow in reading, we match clear and still with impalpable ice, and forgive the impossibility by just matching cold with ice.

This has nothing to do with the logic of grammar, and everything to do with the psychology of reading and Emily Brontë's talent. As indeed does much of that book, which if we consider it rationally is about two horrible people, possibly sociopaths, who are horrible to each other and to everyone else and who we shouldn't care about. It's down to Brontë's talent, that we do.

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While either analysis could be correct, the adjectives are all reasonably descriptive of ice, and the first suggestion seems correct.

The use of a comma before and is not a reliable indicator of intended meaning. Commas were routinely used in series immediately before the and, without discriminating among the series members pre- and post- and, at least up until the 1960s. Standard usage then began to insist on the omission of the pre-and comma (much to my dismay).

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