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I recently asked a question on another Stack Exchange site, and one of my sentences left me in doubt. Here is the sentence.

To be clear, the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather, when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, or the wisest course of action.

I have a couple questions. First, you will notice that "but rather" is a standalone phrase enclosed by commas. Is there a name for this construction? I feel like it helps a sentence build suspense, and serves to emphasize what follows.

Second, the clause "when breaking the rules is the right thing to do" gave me some pause. I would like to think that it's permissible, owing to conjunctive reduction. The preposition "about" is implied, e.g. "but rather, [about] when breaking the rules is the right thing to do".

However, I am not sure whether the preposition "about" can take an adverb such as "when". It seems to me that my clause beginning with "when" is acting like a noun clause. I think this is fine, but I'm not sure. Would you say that the grammar is correct, and the style acceptable?

Also, would you consider the clause beginning with "when" to be a noun clause? (This would help me make sense of the construction.)

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    Do you mean ' ... the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather about those occasions when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, or the wisest course of action.'? – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '16 at 23:49
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes, exactly. – ktm5124 Dec 23 '16 at 23:53
  • Then I'd not delete the second 'about'. Following it by 'when' rather than a noun/nounal ing-form is informal, arguably not fully grammatical on the Quirk-Svartvik scale. '... about when breaking the rules is the right thing to do' is a conversational deletion from '... about those situations when/where breaking the rules is the right thing to do'. // In your example, as deadrat says, parallelism is not observed in either your deleted or the expanded form, which is not good. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '16 at 12:13
  • To use an example uncomplicated by parallelism requirements, 'He talked about when he was a boy' is conversationally idiomatic. But I'd avoid using your example, especially in formal writing. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '16 at 12:20
  • The sentence is not very well constructed, and the commafication doesn't really help. The commas lead the reader to expect that "when breaking rules..." is a parenthetical clause, but it apparently isn't (though the intent is unclear). – Hot Licks Dec 24 '16 at 12:46
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The phrase but rather is an introduction to what the Chicago Manual of Style calls an antithetical element. You've said the concept doesn't concern condoning, and the but rather prepares the reader to find out what contrasting subject does concern the concept.

Unfortunately, you have the set the following traps for the unwary reader:

  • There are three possible targets of the antithesis and each sets up a different expectation:

    actions:

    The concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather condoning immoral thoughts.

    immoral:

    The concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather condoning moral actions.

    about:

    The concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather about another issue entirely.

  • You mean the third from the above, but not only have you elided the preposition about, you've proposed two items (breaking the rules and the wisest course of action) to stand for the opposite of the single not condoning.

  • You've abandoned parallel construction, attempting to balance a gerund phrase (condoning immoral actions) with a clause (when breaking the rules is right) and a noun phrase (course of action).

  • You mean when adverbially (basically, at what times is breaking the rules right), but this clashes with the use of when as a subordinate conjunction along the lines of

    when banning marriage is the law, only outlaws will have inlaws.

  • The comma after to do is intended to be a list separator, but it may instead be mistaken for the comma after an introductory clause or the comma preceding another clause, as in

    when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, or when the wisest course of action is taken.

    The comma cannot be left out, however, lest your reader expect the second part of a compound complement, perhaps along the lines of

    the right thing to do or the least wrong thing.

At this point, your reader may begin to suspect that your introductory to be clear was meant ironically. It might be best to drop back and rephrase:

The concept does not allow us to condone immoral actions, but rather, forces us to determine when breaking the rules is the right thing to do and to embark on the wisest course of action once we've decided to break them.

  • Sounds like the sentence is grammatically correct, but poor style? – ktm5124 Dec 24 '16 at 1:34
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    @ktm5124 I'll say yes, based on speaking. I think you can apply the right intonation to make a listener take the right parse. But have mercy on your readers. – deadrat Dec 24 '16 at 1:37
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To be clear, the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather, when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, or the wisest course of action.

I wouldn’t say that "but rather" is a standalone phrase, though the commas may make it look like it is. The coordinator "but" is obligatory here, but the adverb "rather" is an adjunct (an optional element) serving to add weight to the contrastive meaning of "but", which is introducing an opposing assertion in the clause that follows it.

The expression "condoning immoral actions" is a gerund-participial clause as complement of "about". The clause "when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, or the wisest course of action" is a subordinate interrogative clause (embedded question) meaning "The answer to the question 'When is breaking the rules the right thing to do or the wisest course of action?'"

We understand the whole thing to mean:

"To be clear, the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but about the answer to the question 'When is breaking the rules the right thing to do, or the wisest course of action?"'

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I don't think "about" can be modified by a following adverb or have an adverb as complement, if that's what you mean. But certainly "about" can be followed by a word which is an adverb. This happens when "about" is followed by a noun phrase object which happens to start with an adverb. For instance:

I asked about hastily eating burnt corn.

There, the object of "about" is a noun phrase which is a gerund construction, "hastily eating burnt corn", where the gerund "eating" is modified by the preceding adverb "hastily".

In your example "... the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather, when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, ...", "when" is not an adverb, but rather a relative pronoun.

Such constructions are difficult to understand unless you take the phrase structure of the sentence into account.

  • 'He talked about when he was a boy' is conversationally idiomatic. It's a deleted form. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 24 '16 at 12:19
  • @EdwinAshworth, "when he was a boy" is a headless relative clause, sometimes called a free relative. If a head for this noun phrase is supplied, we get something like "the time when he was a boy" or "the time at which he was a boy", which makes it more obvious that "when" really is a relative pronoun. – Greg Lee Dec 24 '16 at 14:24
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For proper parallel structure, you really should write

the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather, about when breaking the rules is the right thing to do

or

the concept is about not condoning immoral actions, but rather, when breaking the rules is the right thing to do

I prefer the former, but either is technically correct.

As for your title, "about" is followed by a noun-phrase, "when breaking the rules is the right thing to do". Substitute "those occasions in which" for "when" and you'll see what I mean.

Consider that the following is a grammatical sentence:

I don't have anywhere to go, but I enjoy walking about occasionally.

Technically, about is not being used as a true preposition there, but part of a phrasal verb, a very common occurrence in English.

A true preposition, as the name implies, must be positioned before a noun-phrase, so you could write the following:

That hussy only wants to talk about happily married men.

But I don't think that's what you meant either.

  • @ktm5124 - "The tool is still about where he left it." – Malvolio Dec 24 '16 at 3:08
  • I'm talking about prepositional uses of about. For example, "He is talking about when people hurt each other". Would you call the clause "when purple hurt each other" a noun clause? – ktm5124 Dec 24 '16 at 3:11
  • I think you would. Is "about" in this example a true preposition? – ktm5124 Dec 24 '16 at 3:12
  • @ktm5124 - Ah, you mean "about" could mean "approximately", rather than "near to". Then, "This book is about what you would guess from the title." – Malvolio Dec 24 '16 at 3:38
  • It's indeed a preposition in that sentence. But what I'm curious about is when the preposition "about" is followed by the adverb "when", and whether what follows is considered a noun clause. I.e. Can an adverb kick off a noun clause? – ktm5124 Dec 24 '16 at 4:23

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