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  1. To arrive at an answer, Mr Harris combs through what remains of our pre-internet lives, separating the things we will carry forward into the connected world from the worthy things we may leave behind. Our insatiable appetites for information, stimulation, validation will come with us. But when all those wants are met no sooner than they have been felt, the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not.

What does the last sentence ending with 'may not' mean?

  1. Only by doing this can the last generation to know a pre-internet world ensure that those who come after appreciate what has been lost.

Is 'to know' a predicate? Where is the subject after aux verb 'can'? Where is the subject of predicate 'ensure'?

The grammar of these sentences is so tricky for me. Could any native speaker help me? Are there any great advanced English grammar books can be recommended?

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    I haven't read The Economist in a while, but those are two of the worst sentences (in terms of meaning and tendency, not grammaticality) I think I've ever seen it publish. Are both examples from the same article? – Sven Yargs Aug 7 '15 at 6:36
  • I agree, but it not surprising since most economists take themselves too seriously. – jiggunjer Aug 7 '15 at 6:38
  • @YingYi The articles themselves would not be confused (the author would be, who knows), but rather confusing. – Joost Kiefte Aug 7 '15 at 7:11
  • I would say that (1) is ambiguous to the point of being actually ungrammatical. May not what? May not be met? May not be felt? [It could be the result of poor editing, I suppose.] – Andrew Leach Aug 7 '15 at 7:15
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    After may not, come with us (from the previous sentence) has been elided. The come with us, in turn, was building on the sentence before that: "Mr. Harris combs through what remains of our pre-Internet lives, separating the things we will carry forward into the connected world from the worthy things we may leave behind. Our insatiable appetites ... will come with us ... but the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not [come with us]." – pyobum Aug 7 '15 at 8:01
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Our insatiable appetites for information, stimulation, validation will come with us. But when all those wants are met no sooner than they have been felt, the knowledge of what it is to be left unfulfilled may not.

So, this sentence is not very well-written; I don't blame you for being confused by it.

  • the noun "want" normally means a deficiency or a lack; but in this case it means a desire.
  • the sense of "wants are met no sooner than they have been felt" is backward; the author meant to write, "wants are no sooner felt than met", or "wants are met as soon as they are felt".
  • the "may not" at the end is elliptical for "may not come with us". This would be fine, except that the sentence is pretty long and complicated, so there's too much between the "may not" and the original verb phrase that is here being elided.
  • the phrasing is appropriate for a warning about the downsides of technological advance, but then it doesn't make any sort of case for why we would want to retain the knowledge of what it's like to be unfulfilled. I'm actually still not sure whether the author views it as a good thing (and chose poor phrasing) or as a bad thing (and argued it poorly). I can only hope that it's clearer in context.

The overall intended meaning of this sentence is, "When our desires for information, stimulation, validation are all instantly satisfied, we will no longer know what it's like to be unfulfilled."


Only by doing this can the last generation to know a pre-internet world ensure that those who come after appreciate what has been lost.

Is 'to know' a predicate? Where is the subject after aux verb 'can'? Where is the subject of predicate 'ensure'?

"To know" by itself is not a predicate, since it has a direct object, namely "a pre-internet world". The whole phrase "to know a pre-internet world" is a modifier in the larger phrase "the last generation to know a pre-internet world", meaning "the last generation that knew a pre-internet world".

"The last generation to know a pre-internet world" is also the answer to your other questions: it's the subject of "can […] ensure that those who come after appreciate what has been lost".

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  1. Instant gratification of all our needs will make us insensitive to the feeling of need. E.g. if you can eat at every moment of the day, you will probably do so every time you get"hungry", but what it feels to be really hungry (being without sustenance for days) will be lost.
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