I’m not a native English speaker, and I was reading George MacDonald’s fantasy novel of 1858 Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women.

Everything was going fine but suddenly I saw this sentence near the end of a long paragraph, and I couldn't understand what the sentence meant or even how it was put together in its syntax.

Here is the very end of that long paragraph, with the sentence that so puzzles me rendered in bold:

[...] Almost fearing to touch them, they witnessed so mutely to the law of oblivion, I leaned back in my chair, an regarded them for a moment; when suddenly there stood on the threshold of the little chamber, as though she had just emerged from its depth, a tiny woman-form, as perfect in shape as if she had been a small Greek statuette roused to life and motion. Her dress was of a kind that could never grow old-fashioned, because it was simply natural: a robe plaited in a band around the next, and confined by a belt around the waist, descended to her feet. I took notice of her dress, although my surprise was by no means of so over­powering a degree as such an apparition might naturally be expected to excite. Seeing, however, as I suppose, some astonishment in my countenance, she came forward within a yard of me, and said, in a voice that strangely recalled a sensation of twilight, and reedy river banks, and a low wind, even in this deathly room:
              “Anodos, you never saw such a little creature before, did you?”

I can’t make heads or tails of the sentence in bold. The words don’t even seem to fit together into a coherent sentence. Even though I know what each word means by itself, all jumbled together like that the meaning is lost to me.

Can you rearrange the words in that sentence to make something I can understand?

  • 2
    George MacDonald was a major literary influence on many authors whose names you might be quicker to recognize, alas, than his own. Are you quite certain the writer is “showing off”? Remember that it was published more than a sesquicentury ago.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 2:08
  • In my comment, for what it's worth, I shall now recycle and offer a word that I first came across here on ELU: clunky! Evidently the OP had trouble reading the "sentence" [sic] because it is so CLUNKY! There you go! Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 2:37
  • 1
    @HotLicks I think you exaggerate. What is so hard about it?
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 3:20
  • 4
    For a native speaker, the sentence is absolutely fine - a little archaic and clunky, but perfectly readable.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 12:06
  • 1
    @RoryAlsop I wonder whether the confusion might in part derive from the richer set of syntactic forms and nested excursions enjoyed by that age’s literature—which, however well punctuated they may be, nonetheless recursively elaborate each syntactic constituent to a degree unlikely to be produced in spontaneous conversation because it so taxes the mental stack-space normally allocated to the language-processing processes, that “conversational” readers unaccustomed to longer thoughts and deeper structures may be left unable to recover quite where they were in the parse come the end. 😈
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 14:49

1 Answer 1


ᴛʟᴅʀ Try reading it this way:

I noticed her dress but I wasn’t nearly as surprised as you might expect, given how strange she looked.

The author’s original is written in a style common to the way that English literature was very often written back then. Its 1858 publication plants it firmly in the Victorian era, a period that also gave Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a text that many today find challenging to read.

Literary English is different, and even more particularly, lyrical language is different. The language there is in a higher register than routinely found on scattered Post-It notes or Twitter’s tawdry tattles. It sustains sentences lovingly constructed by their authors over time; it is not spontaneous speech nor is meant to be taken for such. Read Dickens and Austen, read Dunsany and Melville; read Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith; read LeGuin and Tolkien. MacDonald, I think, will be much easier for you in comparison.

It may help you to break that sentence up:

I took notice of her dress,

although my surprise was by no means

of so over­powering a degree

as such an apparition

might naturally be expected to excite.

Discarding the lyrical to embrace the pedestrian, one might nonchalantly remark:

I noticed her dress but I wasn’t nearly as surprised as you might expect, given how strange she looked.

Before you understand the structure of that sentence, you don’t put the right stressed on the phrase in your mind, and so its grammar seems But once you do understand it, it can flow naturally off your tongue in a way that anyone would understand it. Phrasing is key here, and phrasing requires that you know which parts fit together, how.

I hope that now that you know what the sentence means through my simplistic and artless paraphrasal, that you can now reread the original. The version with my empty lines separating the sentence’s parts should help you see how it fits together syntactically.

I have now numbed myself to its complexity; whether by semantic satiety or inurement to pain, it now seems to me perfectly comprehensible as written even though when first I read it, it was even for me otherwise.

  • 1
    Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is actually a paragon of clarity, while still maintaining a high register.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 3:50
  • 3
    In the Victorian era, indirectness was considered a sign of being cultured, civilized and polite. Being overly direct was considered uncivilized, impolite, rude and uncouth. These rules applied with special force to a man discussing or describing a woman or talking to a woman (this rule of etiquette is acknowledged, albeit often in the breech, even in modern rap music). The writer in question is intentionally exaggerating the distinction.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 5:19
  • ... anywhere near as surprised ...? Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 11:54
  • Oh, thank you very much, your paraphrase helped me solve that tricky puzzle.
    – Ezati
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 16:45

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