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From a video game:

Fires an arc of knives in front of the caster which deal physical damage.

A forum user posted this criticism:

An arc deals physical damage. The subject is arc, not knives, so deal should be changed to deals.

A developer's response:

No, it is the knives dealing the damage, not the arc. The grammar of the main sentence leaves the subject of the subordinate clause ambiguous - it could be either - but the conjugation of "deal" tells you it is the knives.

I understand the argument on both sides (sort of), but I feel like the forum user is correct.

Could someone with a better understanding of grammar help me see what the correct form is?

3 Answers 3

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This is the developer in question chiming in here.

Both ways are grammatically correct, but there is a different emphasis placed on the source of the damage. If the arc is dealing damage, then there is one source dealing one amount of damage, but if the knives are dealing the damage, then since there are multiple knives, then there are multiple sources of damage applying separately.

This is an important distinction for this particular skill.

A similar example:

"Fires an arc of knives which explode on contact."

There is a significant difference here if the knives explode individually, instead of the entire arc of knives exploding in unison.

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  • Exactly. If it helps, look at it like this: [an arc of knives] which deals damage/an arc of [knives which deal damage]. Both are valid interpretations. Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 23:02
  • Thanks for the clarification! I'm definitely not trying to step on anyone's toes; just thought it was a neat question!
    – vmrob
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 23:06
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You forum user is correct. An "arc" is dealing damage. A specific kind of arc -- an arc of knives. The "of knives" is a genitive, which is a restriction placed on the noun. It isn't the subject of the verb, it is a restriction on the subject.

The exact meaning of the genitive is open to interpretation, it is sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes even carries more than one meaning. In English we use it for designating many different relationships between the two words. However, in all cases the genitive places a restriction on the noun, which is to say it reduces the things the noun can refer too. In this case "arc" is restricted to one composed of knives, an "arc" composed of fire or acid would not qualify, hence it is restricted to knives only.

You could say "Knives firing in an arc deal damage." In which case the plural "knives" would be the subject.

HTH.

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  • That's really informative! Thank you for the answer and the education!
    – vmrob
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 20:17
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    It's not an "arc of knifes"; it's an "arc of knives". The plural of "knife" is "knives". Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 0:30
  • Thanks Peter, what an embarrassing mistake.... I will correct.
    – Fraser Orr
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 16:53
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The construction is ambiguous, but to me the forumite's reasoning makes more sense, thanks to the presence of the clause "in front of the caster".

If we believe the developer, then we have to parse the sentence this way: the spell fires. (What does it fire? An arc. (An arc of what? Knives in front of the caster that deal physical damage.))

This would mean that the spell only picks up knives that were already present, that were already in front of the caster, and that deal physical damage, and fires them in an (unspecified) arc; too bad for you if you don't have any knives already in front of you, or if you only have a couple of laser daggers that deal energy damage, and hopefully your compatriots are much better dodgers than your enemies if you do happen to be standing behind a pile of stilettos. Not what I would expect from a spell.

If we believe the forumite, then we can parse the sentence this way: the spell fires. (What does it fire? an arc. (An arc of what? knives.)) Where does it fire? in front of the caster. What does it do? deal physical damage.

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  • There is nothing that forces the adverbial "in front of the caster" to be bound to "arc", "knives" or "fires", in either case. Constituents need not be contiguous. For a parallel example, "I read an old article yesterday about the lives of gold prospectors" is a perfectly grammatical sentence, but "an (old article yesterday about the lives of gold prospectors)" is not a constituent, as "yesterday" clearly has "read" as its head, and not "article".
    – Amadan
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 4:25

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