Modern English words, then, concerning more complex and theoretical, rather than utilitarian, ideas (astronomy, poetry and epistemology) can generally be found to be of Romance origin, whereas more mundane words such as pronouns and auxiliary verbs can be traced back to German origin."

Question: I am unable to understand the meaning of above sentence. I am confused with the use of commas in the above sentence and to me this makes the meaning of the sentence unclear. Can somebody explain this sentence structure and how commas are used?

Context: This is an excerpt from a reading comprehension passage. The passage is long but I have added a few more lines so that context becomes more clear.

One theory to explain this is that the more elaborate and complex words are primarily used by the elite after the Norman Invasion – who would have favored a Latin-based (or Romance) vocabulary – wheras words with the same meaning in the Old English were used primarily by the lower classes and fell into disuse.

  • So, modern English words referring to more complex and theoretical ideas (rather than utilitarian subjects such as astronomy, poetry and epistemology) will generally be found to be of Romance origin, whereas more mundane words (such as pronouns and auxiliary verbs) can usually be traced back to German origin. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 29 '13 at 11:42
  • @EdwinAshworth could you please explain the construction too. – Aman Deep Gautam Nov 29 '13 at 11:44
  • Yes. Not ungrammatical, but needlessly un-user-friendly. The commas around 'then' are necessary to identify it as a pragmatic marker (and parenthetical). The comma after 'theoretical' is designed to identify contrasting stanzas, the first ('more complex and theoretical') itself weighty. The comma after 'utilitarian' is to aid identification of what is modifying what ('more complex and theoretical' also modifies 'ideas'). The final comma, though strictly unnecessary, aids comprehension and reading. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 29 '13 at 11:53
  • "english words" should be "English words" too. – mplungjan Nov 29 '13 at 11:59

I share your pain. I think it’s the “academic” style of the writing that’s giving you trouble, not the commas.

First try deconstructing the sentence—break it into manageable sections and work to understand those instead of the entire sentence. Once you’re pretty sure you understand each section, you can reconstruct the sentence and, with luck, you’ll now understand it.

If you’re still having problems, try rewriting the sentence (just for you) based on what you understand. Same concepts, just rearranged so it’s easier for you to digest. Then read it over. Does it make sense? Compare it to the original. Do you think you’ve got it right?

Here is minor rewrite that might have made the sentence easier to read and understand:

“Modern English words concerning more complex and theoretical--rather than utilitarian-- ideas (astronomy, poetry and epistemology) are generally of Romance origin, while more mundane words, such as pronouns and auxiliary verbs, can be traced back to German origin."

Get rid of ,then,; change commas around rather utilitarian to dashes; replace can with are, delete be found to be; replace whereas with while; and add commas after more mundane words and auxiliary verbs.

I hope this helps a little.

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