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In the passage...

The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil' is not so much that they failed to live up the outrageous claims made for them - those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous."

I tried to decompose this super complex sentence, however it is beyond my capability now. I need to study more! I decomposed it like this:

The remarkable thing about many of the medicines (that then are dismissed as 'snake oil' that is not so much that the medicines failed to live up the claims that were made for them - those that were harm coloured water) could be positively dangerous.

  • Is that correct?
  • Why did they use "harmless coloured water"? Shouldn't the correct form be "adv+adj+N"?
  • shouldn't it be "harmlessly coloured water"?
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    The water could be "harmlessly colored" and still contain toxic levels of cyanide. "Harmless water", whether colored or not, would still be "harmless". – Hot Licks Mar 11 '15 at 12:00
  • 4
    If this seems like a "super complex sentence" to you—and I mean no disrespect—you might be interested in our sister site, English Language Learners. – Robusto Mar 11 '15 at 12:00
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    This Q may be better asked on English Language Learners – Kris Mar 11 '15 at 12:11
  • thx for suggestion.i am not native and learning English to take IELTS. – Pae Mar 11 '15 at 12:19
  • "Harmlessly coloured" sounds like it means "the process of colouring the water caused no harm to the water". Whereas "harmless coloured water" is "coloured water that will do you no harm". – starsplusplus Mar 11 '15 at 14:53
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The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil' is not so much that they failed to live up [to] the outrageous claims made for them — those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous."

Eels have slippery slimy bodies.

Adjective adjective.

Some potions that used to be called medicines were simply harmless colored water.

Adjective adjective.

The two adjectives are modifying the noun. It is possible to have an adverb modify the adjective:

I would like some lightly steeped tea, please.

...dismissed then as "snake-oil"...

dismissed back in those days as "snake-oil"

Normally we would expect to find "but" or "rather" or "but rather" instead of the dash. Let's look at the clauses (this clause-layout could be refined further but we won't do that right now):

The remarkable thing about many of the medicines
{which were} dismissed then as 'snake oil'
is not so much
that they failed to live up [to] the outrageous claims made for them
{but rather that those which} weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous.

The dash was used here instead of the somewhat wordy "but rather that those which", although the wordy version might have been clearer, especially since the author used a rhetorical phrase ("is not so much") that seems to promise a parallel clause structure. BTW, this practice of leaving out a conjunction is called asyndeton.

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Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns (and words that are used as nouns). Adverbs modify verbs and adjectives.

Harmless is an adjective. As @Kugelblitz indicates in his answer, it modifies water. The water is both harmless and coloured (we AmEs understand it despite the superfluous U).

If harmlessly were used, it would mean the coloration was harmless, rather than the water. While such a meaning is conceivable, as in

the water was harmlessly colored with vegetable dye

it does not really fit in this context. The discussion is about the harmlessness (or lack thereof) of the product itself. The false medicines could be dangerous regardless of the appearance.

This does not rule out the possibility that in some instances, the so-called snake oil was made harmful by the very adulterants that provided the coloration. But in the sentences as offered, the characteristics, harmless and colored, are effectively independent.

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  1. I think the sentence is right. I would make one change by adding a comma after 'them'. (I think it's not necessary; just personal preference...):

    The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil' is not so much that they failed to live up the outrageous claims made for them , - those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous.

  2. In this case, I believe both the words 'harmless' and 'coloured' are adjectives to the word 'water'.

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We have a composite noun

coloured water

And we describe that coloured water as being harmless.

We could also start with

water

and decide to undertake a process to colour it, and want to do that colouring harmlessly. We would then have

harmlessly coloured water

The sentence you are analysing the author is describing the medicine, the coloured water. So harmless is used.

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