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"This fine-looking, commanding man had become a shadow of his former self."

"a shadow of his former self" means he was not like what he once had been, right?

Then, I am wondering if "this fine-looking, commanding man" was fine-looking and commanding and his former self had been much worse before, or he had been handsome and imposing but then lost almost all his merits? What happened to this man first? Was his "former self" good or bad?

How can I paraphrase this sentence?

  • Please provide complete context: The whole sentence as it is. The surrounding sentences. The whole paragraph if you can. State the source and provide a link to the source if possible. – Kris Oct 17 '13 at 7:27
  • I tried, but it seems very lacking in any relevent surrounding imformation. So, anyway, the quoted sentence itself is quite vague in its meaning even to you native English-speakers? – dennylv Oct 17 '13 at 7:37
  • I wouldn't say vague. Just unusual. – Roaring Fish Oct 17 '13 at 7:38
  • a weak or inferior remnant or version of something: "this fine-looking, commanding man had become a shadow of his former self" -- oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/shadow – Kris Oct 17 '13 at 7:46
  • Maybe Oxford Dictionaries should use better examples! – Roaring Fish Oct 17 '13 at 8:19
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"A shadow of his former self" means that compared to the past, he is now as insubstantial as a shadow.

Usually this is used to describe insubstantial, unimportant people who used to be substantial and powerful. What is unusual here is that the shadow itself is described as fine-looking and commanding.

It is difficult to say without context (Is the former self described elsewhere?) but my guess is that the writer is using the unusual construction to get the readers attention, and the former self was a truly magnificent specimen, so much so that even being fine-looking commanding is a mere shadow.

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  • The sentence is quoted from the New Oxford Amercian Dictionary.I don't get any other context. – dennylv Oct 17 '13 at 6:03
  • Do you decipher this sentence as "Although he was still somewhat good-looking and imposing, he had once been far more magnificent and gorgeous? – dennylv Oct 17 '13 at 6:13
  • If "it is difficult to say without context" then where is the answer? :) :0 – Kris Oct 17 '13 at 7:24
  • @ dennylv ~ yes, that is how I would interpret it. – Roaring Fish Oct 17 '13 at 7:28
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    @kris~ the answer is above, but I am grown up enough to understand that meaning is always contextual. It is possible, for example, that "the fine looking, commanding man" is sarcasm. Without a wider context this cannot be known so I highlight that it is difficult to say without context - it would be arrogant to not do so. That does not mean that the current answer is invalid. It means it is valid conditional on more information being given. – Roaring Fish Oct 17 '13 at 7:35
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“This once fine-looking, commanding man had become a shadow of his former self.”

is how I would read the sentence. Makes sense.

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  • Writing a new sentence of your own instead of decoding the sentence provided by the OP is not an answer... – Roaring Fish Oct 17 '13 at 7:37
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    @RoaringFish The question was "Help me understand it". Kris's answer addresses that. Any more would be speculation. – TrevorD Oct 17 '13 at 13:01
  • Isn't inserting a new word and saying "this is what it should say" speculation? – Roaring Fish Oct 17 '13 at 16:42
  • I'm with Kris on this one. The Oxford Dictionaries are trying to supply an example of shadow used in the sense of "a weak or inferior remnant or version of something" (see oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/shadow)—but the example makes sense only if we preface it with something like "When I met him, six months before, Arnold seemed healthy, confident, and imposing. But something had happened in the intervening time, and somehow..." I think that Oxford provided a bad example here, since it requires you to rehabilitate it through invented context. – Sven Yargs Oct 18 '13 at 1:23
  • While that is one possible reading, there is no reason to prefer that reading over others. – Merk Oct 19 '13 at 8:03

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