Would you elaborate on the following sentence structure and grammar. It seems somewhat complex. What is the function of "becoming prosperous" in the sentence? Is it a reduced form (if yes, for what?)? In the case that it shows contrast, why has the author used and as a conjunction?

They succeeded, becoming prosperous, and piety mingled with smugness made the whole family insufferably sententious.

The context of this sentence is a paragraph from Paul Theroux's article in the Smithsonian magazine, "The Trouble with Autobiography":

My maternal grandparents, Alessandro and Angelina Dittami, were relative newcomers to America, having emigrated separately from Italy around 1900. An Italian might recognize Dittami (“Tell me”) as an orphan’s name. Though he abominated any mention of it, my grandfather was a foundling in Ferrara. As a young man, he got to know who his parents were—a well-known senator and his housemaid. After a turbulent upbringing in foster homes, and an operatic incident (he threatened to kill the senator), Alessandro fled to America and met and married my grandmother in New York City. They moved to Medford with the immigrant urgency and competitiveness to make a life at any cost. They succeeded, becoming prosperous, and piety mingled with smugness made the whole family insufferably sententious.

  • "Becoming prosperous" means that "they" got rich. The "and" has the sense of "and so" or "and then". It's just telling you the consequence of "their" success.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 12:47
  • What is the full structure of the reduced structure "becoming prosperous"?
    – Mani
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 12:51
  • What makes you think there's any "contrast" involved? We don't have full context, but presumably the family have already been identified as "pious". The text as given strongly implies their success resulted in prosperity, and pragmatically we can assume that prosperity led to smugness. We're looking at consequences, not contrasts. I've no idea how to describe "becoming prosperous" in syntactic terms, nor do I even know if it would the the same with, say, "being determined". Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 12:54
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    @Mani You might consider the fuller structure to be "they became prosperous". Without the word "they" in that phrase, the continuous tense avoids the impression that the prosperity came after the success.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 12:56
  • @Lawrence: Sounds good to me. But note that if we apply the same principles to my "being determined", we more or less have to include a conjunction to explicitly state the relationship between the main and the "parenthetical" clause: They succeeded because they were determined, and.... Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 13:06

1 Answer 1


Not sure if this helps, but with your quoted sentence making perfect sense, I'm not sure what exactly your question is:

'they succeeded,' -> well, they became successful at something

'becoming prosperous,' -> they 'prospered', ie. their business grew, they became rich, etc.

'piety mingled with smugness' -> ok, as a native Dutch speaker, this one is a bit trickier, though mostly because 'piety' describes a concept rather than have one clear meaning (imo) and can apply to religion, spirituality and family, but what it says here is (assuming the phrase refers to filial piety) 'their sense of duty toward each other mixed with self confidence'

'insufferably sententious' -> 'sententious' can have different specific meanings, so any accurate rephrasing would require more context. However, I guess it can be read as 'meddlesome to an extreme'.

'They became successful, made a lot of money, and their sense of duty to their family combined with their self confidence turned them into a very annoying meddlesome lot' (I guess it's a very fancy way of saying 'they got money, and now they're acting like they're too big for their boots').

OK, this is rather rough rephrasing, but I hope it helps understanding the sentence and how its wording is not showing contrast. The usage of 'and' simply appears to indicate that the 'insufferably sententiousness' is the result of them succeeding and becoming prosperous.

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    I don't think OP has any problems understanding the cited text. He's asking for a structural breakdown / analysis, not a paraphrasing to "clarify" the meaning. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 13:12
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    Exactly, I wish to understand structural analysis of the whole sentence.
    – Mani
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 13:44

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