Here I am trying to peer into the meaning of this below paragraph (full version here).Being a non-native English speaker I am struggling in making sense, especially the bold part.

The paragraph :

Gautier was indeed a poet and a strongly representative one – a French poet in his limitations even more than in his gifts; and he remains an interesting example of the manner in which, even when the former are surprisingly great, a happy application of the latter may produce the most delightful works. Completeness on his own scale is to our mind the idea he most instantly suggests.

What are the semantics associated with the former and latter mention in the bold part?

A more general question, how one can tackle such confusing sentential structure in English?

  • 5
    It's an unusually (and unnecessarily) contorted construction. May 3, 2016 at 9:08
  • @Ed So what can normal level non-eng-natives can do about this? May 3, 2016 at 9:12
  • 3
    I'm a 60-year-plus well educated native speaker, and I'd not even read such high-flown prose unless I were forced to. If this is compulsory reading, show this comment to your supervisor. May 3, 2016 at 9:17
  • @Ed I wish if I could and Well to get into great Graduate business school one need to criss-cross through such gloomy passages May 3, 2016 at 9:26
  • I think it's just a good lesson that being a native speaker of a language does not necessarily make one a good writer of that language. May 3, 2016 at 16:44

3 Answers 3


To answer your second question first, one method for tackling difficult sentences is to deconstruct and, if necessary, then reconstruct them in shorter, bite-sized sentences so that the meaning can be teased out.

The text you've provided is challenging even for a native English speaker. Part of the difficulty lies with former and latter, expressions that are used when the writer wants to refer to two previously mentioned things, without having to repeat them. The former thing is the one first mentioned, while the latter is the one mentioned second.

In your example, it's not immediately apparent what the "first" and "second" things are, but reading it carefully, the only clear candidates are "limitations" and "gifts", respectively.

The next step is to replace the problematic words with the words they refer to, remove the conjunctions and restructure the long sentence into shorter sentences:

Gautier was indeed a poet and a strongly representative one. [He was] a French poet in his limitations even more than in his gifts. Even when [a poet's limitations] are surprisingly great, a happy application of the [poet's gifts] may produce the most delightful works. [Gautier] remains an interesting example of [this].

To paraphrase: Gautier is an example of how a poet can overcome their limitations and write delightful poetry by applying their talents.

To be honest, I'm struggling to understand what the writer means by "a French poet in his limitations even more than in his gifts". The best I can make of this is that Gautier's limitations made him even more of a French poet than his talents did. A somewhat absurd statement, in my view.

  • 5
    I'd interpret the "French poet" bit to imply that French poets, taken as a whole, have stereotypical limitations and gifts, and that Gautier's personal limitations matched more closely to those of the stereotypical French poet than his person gifts did. That is, while Gautier's gifts might not have been atypical for a French poet, his limitations were even less atypical.
    – R.M.
    May 3, 2016 at 15:30

"The former" refers to "his limitations", "the latter" to "his gifts". The writer is saying that a poet's good qualities, well applied, may enable him to produce delightful work in spite of his limitations.

  • @Bunting, Thank you, it is clear now, even I speculated the almost same meaning. The problem was even though I managed to slightly comprehend it but doubts were looming over my interpretation, and of course then the confidence was missing.That is why I asked a more general question. May 3, 2016 at 9:19

"a French poet in his limitations even more than in his gifts" isn't grammatically coherent. this sentence was either cut off or translated poorly; it doesn't actually have any meaning as it's worded. as a native english speaker, any meaning is inferred by readers, not declared by the author.

  • 2
    Er, the full sentence is "Gautier was ..." - the fact that both clauses say "poet" makes the meaning unambiguous.
    – Random832
    May 4, 2016 at 0:27
  • 1
    I find the phrase thoroughly coherent both with regard to sense and with regard to grammar. If you have a specific argument to make about its grammatical failings, you ought to make it. As matters stand, you merely assert that it is ungrammatical, speculate about the root cause of its supposed failings, assert that it is meaningless, and then reiterate that it has no inherent meaning. That isn't an argument—it's a series of sometimes overlapping assertions made without pointing to any supporting evidence.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 4, 2016 at 6:24

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