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What is the correct "parsing" of this sentence:

Futuristic but not out of time — like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like.

I came to two interpretations of the above sentence and would like to know whether either is correct:

  1. [Futuristic] but not [out of time — like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like.]

    And so it is saying the device does not look like an artifact from the. . . .

  2. [Futuristic but not out of time] — [like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like.]

    Therefore, the device does look like an artifact. . . .

The full paragraph the sentence is taken from (to provide additional context)

The design of Glass is actually really beautiful. Elegant, sophisticated. They look human and a little bit alien all at once. Futuristic but not out of time — like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like. This is Apple-level design. No, in some ways it’s beyond what Apple has been doing recently. It’s daring, inventive, playful, and yet somehow still ultimately simple. The materials feel good in your hand and on your head, solid but surprisingly light. Comfortable. If Google keeps this up, soon we’ll be saying things like "this is Google-level design."

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It's not a hyphen, it's a dash, which means that your number 2 is correct. I'm not sure what that "sentence" actually means, though. It seems distinctly colloquial at best and downright ungrammatical at worst. –  Andrew Leach Feb 22 '13 at 23:07
    
A. 2 is the clear meaning, to the extent that this sort of language tolerates either clarity or meaningfulness. B. That's not a sentence but a collocation of phrases and clauses. C. That's not a hyphen but a dash. –  StoneyB Feb 22 '13 at 23:11
    
I don't think it's ungrammatical, so much that unclear thinking, no matter how well reflected in the sentence, will be unclear. –  Jon Hanna Feb 22 '13 at 23:57
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

First, it's not a hyphen; it's an em dash. We use it for:

  1. Aposiopesis: where a sentence is ended suddenly because the speaker is too emotional or can't think of the right way to express something or just—
  2. A stronger break than parentheses—inserting a clause in the middle of another though—but remaining with the same sentence.
  3. Showing a change of thought, much as a colon does—it is much "stronger" than a comma, but still "weaker" than a period ending the sentence.

So first we have the first clause with the first thought:

Futuristic but not out of time.

Then we have a change of thought, still related enough to be in the same sentence:

like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like.

This thought extends the first. So while there's something "futuristic" about it, it doesn't have a completely outlandish look. The second thought clarifies this, and uses the idea of someone in the 60s trying to imagine now to try to explain what they mean. So while there's something futuristic about it, there's also something classic or even old-fashioned about it too.

(Incidentally, you'll note that I don't put space around my em dashes, while the source you quote does. This is a style rather than punctuation matter, and we're just following different style guides. Indeed, my preferred choice is to use hairspaces — very thin spaces that provide just a tiny amount of space — but they aren't handy to type with my setup, and lack of font support means some people may see blocks or question marks rather than the thin spaces I intend, so they aren't advisable in cases like this where you depend on other people's computers' fonts to render it).

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Britain tends to prefer spaced en dashes (as does Bringhurst). America tends to prefer unspaced em dashes. Like you, I rather like a thin space to either side of the em dash. U+2009 THIN SPACE works, except that you don’t really want to break before it (hm, I think), which might suggest using U+202F NARROW NO-BREAK SPACE fore and the other one aft. I haven’t thought this through too deeply, though. –  tchrist Feb 23 '13 at 0:29
    
@tchrist really, both the spacing and non-spacing practices come from different approaches to the problem of not being able to have a thin or hair space with a typewriter, so you have to take an all-or-nothing approach. –  Jon Hanna Feb 23 '13 at 0:33
    
Ah yes, the dreaded tyranny of the typewriter. Here’s a nice extended citation about the tyranny of ASCII, which is much the same thing. The sad thing is how many people confuse typewriting for typesetting. –  tchrist Feb 23 '13 at 0:38
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Second, it's not a sentence.
What's the subject, what's the verb?

It's a complex adjective phrase (i.e, a reduced disjoined restrictive relative clause), with a couple of descriptive similes attached, after being introduced by like, like most similes.

The whole apparatus might well be what one would put after

  • This thing here [pointing] is ...
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I can forgive the lack of subject more than the actual analogy. We can fill in the subject as an elided "A Google Glass set", but the actual description still ends up not really describing. –  Jon Hanna Feb 23 '13 at 10:51
    
You're right; it's all allusive metaphor. Description is not easy. –  John Lawler Feb 23 '13 at 15:09
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