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I am reading "The Reader Over Your Shoulder" by Robert Graves (author of I, Claudius), which is a clarity\grace guide for written English. He has a section about punctuation, which gives examples of mistakes found in the wild. This is one of them:

"The fire of Prometheus is as a rush-light compared to the volcano of steam..."

The examination noting the punctuation error (one of many errors in this single sentence): "Without a comma at 'rush-light' it is the rush-light, not the fire of Prometheus, which is being compared to the volcano."

It's an interesting point, but I cannot find a further break down of this example (and how to use it) in my other grammar resources.

It is similar to how he pointed out the difference between these two sentences: "I did not go to the party, because I was not wanted" and "I did not go to the party because I was not wanted." The first one meaning what you think and the second meaning "I went to the party but the reason I went wasn't merely for the reason that I was not wanted (ie, I didn't go out of spite)." I had never heard of that usage either, though explanations of it were easier to find online than the rush-light example.

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    The last example ("did not go to the party" without the comma) does not necessarily mean what you say. It is more likely to mean "I did not go to the party, but I did not stay away because I was not wanted; I stayed away for another reason altogether." – Andrew Leach May 27 '14 at 19:33
  • These grammar and style guides are interesting but never take one person's opinion on English as definitive. I agree that these examples aren't beyond criticism. – user24964 May 28 '14 at 8:57
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The full sentence reads as follows:

The fire of Prometheus is as a rush-light compared to the volcano of steam which, like all great world forces, is a mixture of Pandora and her box; for it has given us beauty and wealth, and also ugliness and starvation.

The sentence as presented ("The fire of Prometheus is as a rush-light compared to the volcano of steam...") is indeed ambiguous; but the ambiguity cannot be resolved merely by adding commas, particularly when one has to take into account the existence of the description that follows. To start with, the first elements need to be re-ordered:

"Compared to the volcano of steam, the fire of Prometheus is as a rush-light ..."

Clearly, some fiddling also needs to be done to incorporate the description of the volcano of steam into the fix. Thus we end up with something like the following:

Compared to the volcano of steam which, like all great world forces, is a mixture of Pandora and her box -- having given us beauty and wealth, and also ugliness and starvation -- the fire of Prometheus is as a rush-light.

  • I think 'fire 1 – steam 6' is more catchy. But you dismember it well too. – Edwin Ashworth May 27 '14 at 19:51
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Dearly as I love Graves and Hodge, I don’t think that repointing solves the compared to ambiguity. The main problem is the inadvertent parallelism between fire of Prometheus and volcano of steam.

That is, the author intends to express a ratio, A:B as C:D, where

  • A is the fire of Prometheus
  • B is a rush-light
  • C is steam
  • D is a volcano

But phrasing C-D as the volcano of steam, parallel with A, makes it appear that that phrase is to stand as C, and D is missing.

And the metaphor is mixed: I don’t think that volcano evokes an image of titanically bright illumination.

I would recast the entire thing, perhaps like this:

The Promethean fire had explosive effects; but they were mere firecrackers compared to the volcanic eruption which steam set off.

It’s still awkward, but at least it makes sense.

The party problem arises from the ambiguous scope of not. Does not do A because B mean

  • [not do A] because B, which might be paraphrased because B, not do A — implying the alternative but instead do C
  • not [do A because B], which might be paraphrased do A, not because B — implying the alternative but instead because C

Again, I think pointing a slender reed to rely on (and officious editors are apt to “correct” it). I prefer restructuring to repointing here.

Because I was not wanted I did not go to the party but went to the movies instead.
I went to the party not because I was not wanted but because I thought I was wanted.

  • Ratios? You'll be rewriting Paradise Lost in Morse Code next. (Oh, and John Lawler will love the building metaphor.) – Edwin Ashworth May 27 '14 at 19:45
  • @EdwinAshworth - The building metaphor would mortarfy most people. – Erik Kowal May 28 '14 at 6:20
  • @Erik Resulting in concrete mass nouns? – Edwin Ashworth May 28 '14 at 13:02
  • @EdwinAshworth Resulting at least in some sort of erectile dysfunction. – StoneyB on hiatus May 28 '14 at 13:10

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