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Recently I have been reading "The Lost Symbol" and there is a sentence I find hard to understand.

The wooden stair descending to the Capitol's subbasement were as steep and shallow as any stairs Langdon had ever traversed.

From the context, it sounds Langdon has never traversed a stair as steep as this one, but the sentence itself seems to be saying that Langdon always traverses stairs as steep as these.

What does the author mean here?

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Are you sure you've transcribed it correctly? I suspect "stairs"rather than "stair", and I am confused by "steep and shallow", which to me are antonyms. –  Colin Fine Apr 19 '12 at 19:30
    
Yes,I checked,it's stairs. –  vince Apr 19 '12 at 19:43
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@Colin Fine: Shallow in this context refers to the narrowness of each step (the horizontal surface), relative to the height of each riser (the vertical surface). The risers are higher than the step width, so the stair is steep. A flight of stairs can be a stair or the stairs - although not usually a stairs, for reasons that escape me. It's a bit odd to mix singular and plural, but the writer was can reasonably use singular for the first one, and I think it would be at least as odd to use singular in the second reference. –  FumbleFingers Apr 20 '12 at 1:42
    
@FumbleFingers: I guess that must be the meaning of "shallow", but only because "steep" is there, which rules out all the obvious meanings for "shallow". I find it a very strange use. Is it a US thing? Would you understand "a shallow staircase" in that sense? –  Colin Fine Apr 21 '12 at 12:34
    
@Colin Fine: I most certainly wouldn't understand "shallow staircase" in isolation to mean "steep"! Witness shallow slope and shallow gradient, which would always mean the complete opposite! But I think of it as "How far into the step does your foot go?" - if it's shallow, you won't be able to use your heels for support when climbing up the stairs. –  FumbleFingers Apr 21 '12 at 13:57

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Your first interpretation is almost right. It means he'd never traversed stairs steeper than these. (It's odd, however, to speak of 'traversing' stairs.)

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So "as … as any … someone had ever done” is some kind of pattern to mean something is beyond someone's experience? –  vince Apr 19 '12 at 19:47
    
@Barrie That's because it's Dan Brown. –  Kevin Apr 19 '12 at 19:47
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@vince, no. More like AT the limit of someones experience –  Kevin Apr 19 '12 at 19:48
    
@vince: As Kevin says. –  Barrie England Apr 19 '12 at 19:50
    
Thanks guys! one more question, if I say something is beyond someones experience,is there any similar expression can do that? –  vince Apr 19 '12 at 21:27

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