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This is a sentence from The Economist:

IT IS growing harder to distinguish one bloody day in Syria from the next, unless the horror is so stark as to earn a special mark in the trajectory of an increasingly gruesome conflict.

Please help me in understanding this statement. I am unable to get the accurate meaning. Also help me understand the statement after "Unless".

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closed as too localized by Mitch, MετάEd, Matt E. Эллен, Mahnax, tchrist Sep 10 '12 at 23:59

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

The notion here is that because so many days in Syria are gruesome, it is hard to remember the days distinctly.

“The horror is so stark as to earn a special mark” means the action stands out especially sharply and clearly.

“In the trajectory of an increasingly gruesome conflict” refers to the history, or path, of conflict that grows ever more violent and bloody.

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thank u. It's so easy as you explain but why not as I read :) Is this sentence a bit convoluted, in its sense, to produce the intended notion? Somehow, I didn't get its meaning after many attempts. After all I am an ESL learner... :) – Manoj Aug 31 '12 at 17:17
@Manoj, I think the sentence isn't convoluted; however, it's fairly long, and it's not obvious how to break it into understandable chunks, unless you recognize the form «is so X as to Y». For a sentence like this you might try dropping out modifiers like special, increasingly, and gruesome to shorten it. – jwpat7 Aug 31 '12 at 17:26
Oh, that's a good piece of advice I would follow. – Manoj Aug 31 '12 at 17:30

Almost every day in Syria is equally bloody, except when a day is excepcionally bloody.

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The reason you are "unable to get the accurate meaning" is that there is no "accurate" meaning—just a fuzzy blob of meanings from which an experienced reader like jwpat7 extracts what the author intended by disregarding much of what the author actually said.

There are three distinct ideas in the sentence:

  1. Any day in Syria is like every other day.
  2. Some days in Syria are notably worse than the others.
  3. The conflict in Syria is becoming worse.

Proposition 1 is contradicted by propositions 2 and 3; and confusion is exacerbated by:

  • "Elegant variation" (the term is Fowler's): bloody, stark horror and gruesome lead you to look for subtle distinctions which are not intended—all are characterizations of the same violence.
  • Inappropriate idiom: the author confuses mark in the sense of "a physical sign of distinction" with mark in the sense of "a grade awarded in a class"—it is the latter which is earned.
  • Confusing metaphor: How does one either "earn a mark in" or attach a "mark" to a trajectory?

A little attention to coordinating his thoughts might have led the author to say something like this:

In Syria's increasingly gruesome conflict, one bloody day follows another, each bloodier than the one before, none distinct except when everyday bloodiness rises to stark horror.

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Interesting to know such dissection of the sentence is possible as I haven't done this type of analysis. It seems you have got my problem exactly. – Manoj Sep 3 '12 at 15:29
@Manoj I learned this sort of analysis from The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. It's a funny and very valuable book. It was written in 1943, and most of its examples of faulty usage employ styles that are no longer practiced; but as I was writing this answer I found myself thinking "Good heavens, here's one instance where things haven't changed as much as I thought!" – StoneyB Sep 3 '12 at 15:44
That's nice to hear of some good book. Hey, I want a list of some of the best sources on the web for standard, refined English articles, for that matter any good English language site. Could you help? – Manoj Sep 3 '12 at 15:52
@Manoj The problem is that most internet writing is "journalistic" -- composed in the day for the day, subject accordingly to errors of haste and insufficient rewriting; more painstaking work, suitable as a model for formal writing, will only be found in books or in journals (mostly academic) operating on a longer cycle. The internet is invaluable, however, as a source of colloquial models: find a chat group on a subject (not too academic) which interests you. – StoneyB Sep 3 '12 at 16:09

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