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There was the following passage in Time magazine’s (December 1, 2016) article that came under the title, “How Castro will be Trump’s first foreign policy test”:

North Korea has both an erratic leader and nuclear weapons. Russia juggles a shrinking economy, an aggressive military and expanding role in the Middle East. China is bracing for threatened trade war, and Europe wonders if the transatlantic alliance that maintained peace for seven decades is about to be open to negotiation. So little is clear that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case for the incoming leader of the new world.

I wonder what is the subject of “being little clear.” Is the subject of “so little clear” that “Castro’s death can be a test case for President-elect,” or unsettled situation of the world depicted in the preceding passage to “So little is clear.” I’m struggling to judge which of ①“so … that …,” or ⓶ an inversion of “formal subject +that ” construction does the last line come under.

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    Little, meaning a small amount, is the subject of its sentence. The clause beginning with that is complement to clear. But I'm not sure this addresses your concern. – deadrat Jan 8 '17 at 1:43
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    The that clause is part of the so/such ... that S construction; it's not clear that it's a complement of clear. – John Lawler Jan 8 '17 at 18:04
  • The subject of the sentence is the NP so little. The content clause that Castro’s departure took on ... world is licensed by the degree adverb so. The Subject so little occurs in it natural position here in front of the verb BE, and for this reason there is no inversion in this sentence. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 8 '17 at 18:18
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    Related paraphrases: (1) Little is clear -- so little that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case. (2) Little is clear, so that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case. The construction is normally causative, which includes purpose if human motives are involved. – John Lawler Jan 8 '17 at 18:19
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There are two obvious ways to parse that sentence. You could use "so" as a conjunction:

So... (little) is clear that Castro's departure took on the quality of test case for the incoming leader of the new world.

Or you could use it as a modifier to "little" to say how little:

(So little) is clear that Castro's departure took on the quality of test case for the incoming leader of the new world.

Either way, 'little' is technically the subject.

Side note: the phrasing here feels very awkward to me. Usually the phrase "little is clear" is used to show that something is unknown. Like: "Little is clear about why the vehicle took a sudden turn..." or "Little is clear from the meaning of this sentence..." Using that after it ("Little is clear that...") is weird. I'm not quite sure what the author was going for here.

Edit to add...

I think @JohnLawler's suggested paraphrases in the comment on OP's original question highlight the two alternative interpretations well:

(1) Little is clear -- so little that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case. [so as modifier]

(2) Little is clear, so that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case. [so as conjunction]

I think the original author probably meant #1, but I still think it would have been better had it been rephrased.

  • On one level the author is saying "With all of these current uncertainties that i have listed, this will be a test case" . But, that might sound like a "normal" situation. I think the author is trying to convey some exasperation and color the situation as extreme at the same time. – Tom22 Jan 8 '17 at 4:03
  • For example, I believe that saying "so little time remains" would be an emotional appeal in ways that saying "there is not much time left" isn't. I don't know how to make that case in writing though. – Tom22 Jan 8 '17 at 4:12
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    Using so as a conjunction is not an obvious parse. If fact, I'd say it's nonsensical. – deadrat Jan 8 '17 at 4:57
  • The subject of the sentence is the phrase So little. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 8 '17 at 18:21
  • @deadrat :shrug: Both ways sound pretty nonsensical to me. "I read it and it sounded silly. So, little was clear from the meaning of this sentence." – Lynn Jan 9 '17 at 2:25
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I suspect you are being confused by the odd verb tenses.

This sentence is at odds with what we expect from a form like "It is clear that it took ..." In the OP's example sentence, the shift in tense is needed to connect the examples rendered in present tense to the past event. But logically, the present can't be used to explain why something was viewed that way in the past. It can be used to justify it, but it can't be said to be "how" it came about. This may be why you sensed that somehow, something got inverted. It did - logic got inverted - and journalist are famous for doing this. But this sentence doesn't invert syntax the way you suggest.

What the writer has left unsaid is that the unsettled geopolitical landscape of which he gave current examples has existed for a long time.

So little (of the geopolitical landscape) has been clear that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case for the incoming leader of the new world.

The writer is perfectly silent regarding who made this assignment, why we should accept it, and what the "incoming leader of the new world" thinks about it. But they seem to be suggesting it was inevitable, which, of course, it wasn't.

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"So" as a modifier emphasizes the cause or reason of the following clause as in:

(1) The examination was so difficult that not many students passed it.

(2) I was so little that they had to build me a box to get up on to put things in the machine.

In No. (1), the reason not many students passed the examination was it was too difficult. In No. (2), the reason they had to build me a box was I was too little (short). In other words, in "So A that B" construction, A is the cause (reason) of B and B is the result of A.

The sentence in your question has the same construction and it could be rephrased to:

Clear things are so little (few) that Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case for the incoming leader of the new world.

The reason Castro's departure took on the quality of test case for Trump is there are not many things in world politics that are as clear as Castro's death.

The pronoun little is the subject of the sentence.

  • The subject of the sentence is the phrase So little within which little is s determinative occurring as a fused determiner-head within the NP. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 8 '17 at 18:09
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Castro’s departure took on the quality of test case for the incoming leader of the new world

as a consequence of

so little (of contemporary politics) being clear.

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