This sentence is ridiculously complicated. What made it so?

Until last week, I would have said that your best hope for being more than a bodiless brain in a chemical stew was the fact that no scientist was yet capable of sustaining a viable brain in a jar.


I kind of know what it means ...

"If you want to be more than a highly-developed brain in a jar, then your hope is dashed because it's not even possible to sustain life in a jar in the first place... at least that's what I would have said... until last week."

Am I right?

  • 1
    Andy, please edit your question and put a greater-than symbol, >, in front of whichever sentence is supposed to be the quoted sentence. Also, run a spell check by right clicking and selecting 'Check spelling' Sep 3 '13 at 17:34
  • Or, if you haven't actually quoted the relevant sentence or two of the blog here, please do so! (Using the > markdown syntax)
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 3 '13 at 17:36
  • Sorry I made a mistake here. The bold line is the one. Thank you.
    – user41481
    Sep 3 '13 at 17:45
  • 1
    In my opinion, this is not a ridiculously complicated sentence. Complicated, yes, but not ridiculously so. Semi-tautological, though...Is it just me?
    – JeffSahol
    Sep 3 '13 at 18:41
  • @JeffSahol I didn't think the sentence was that complicated. Also the logic is pretty faulty. If you CAN sustain a viable brain in a jar, with a sufficiently good simulation of reality, why would you need to simulate a modern reality that includes brains in jars? Just simulate last week's reality. Sep 3 '13 at 18:43

Break it down:

Until last week, I would have said

This is the conditional perfect tense which refers to a missed opportunity in the past.

your best hope for being more than a bodiless brain in a chemical stew

This is referring to the article's main story, which is about growing brains in jars. Theoretically, one could grow a brain in a jar, hook it up to a computer, and simulate its reality such that the brain thinks it is a real person in a real body.

was the fact that no scientist was yet capable of sustaining a viable brain in a jar.

Prior to last week, no scientist could create such a brain in a jar. Last week that changed. The missed opportunity from the first clause was that nobody asked the author if they were real or just a brain in a jar. If they had asked, the author's response would have been that they probably aren't a brain in a jar, because nobody knows how to do that. Now someone does know how to do that, so the author can't use that answer.


The tenses in the sentence are all over the place. The author has mixed past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous tenses in the same long winded sentence.

I also think that he should use of instead of for after 'hope'. OP's reconstruction is far better.

  • 3
    Well, no. There's a modal past perfect and a simple past. Being and sustaining are gerunds. Sep 3 '13 at 19:00
  • Really?? only if the reader's attention span is short enough to ignore the 'was' before 'sustaining' ....
    – user49727
    Sep 4 '13 at 11:32
  • And your hope 'for' being a constructive commentator makes your hope 'of' becoming one rather improbable. Guess what is wrong with this sentence?
    – user49727
    Sep 4 '13 at 11:44
  • Nope. The construction was sustaining is not present. Sustaining is the object of the preposition of, of sustaining... is the complement of the adjective capable, capable of sustaining is an Adjective Phrase complementing the verb was. Parallel: No scientist was capable of miracles. Sep 4 '13 at 13:01
  • so now you think sustaining is a noun or an adjectival phrase or both, but not a gerund?
    – user49727
    Sep 4 '13 at 13:12

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