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This is preface of The punishments of China:

The wisdom of the Chinese Legislature is no where more conspicuous than in its treatment of robbers, no person being doomed to suffer death for having merely deprived another of some temporal property, provided he neither uses, nor carries, any offensive weapon. This sagacious edict renders robbery unfrequent; the daring violator of the laws, hesitating to take with him those means, which might preserve his own life, or affect that of the plundered, in the event of resistance, generally confines his depredations to acts of private pilfering, and a robbery, attended with murder, is, of course, very rarely perpetrated. 

  1. What kind of grammar does ", Hesitating..." have? What is the meaning of this sentence?
  2. What is the subject of confines?

There are too many commas for me to grasp the sentence structure. I'm totally confused. Thank you in advance.

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    #1 - parenthetical clause. It means the robber isn't keen on carrying weapons. #2. "his depredations". (#3) The quote asserts that the Chinese lawmakers are wise, and it shows in this: if a robber doesn't carry weapons, they don't get the death penalty. So robbers don't normally carry weapons, normally leaving the victims of robbery alive. – Lawrence Mar 18 '17 at 7:29
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    It must be said that this use of commas (and the language in general) is very much of its time, and in modern English there would probably be no commas in the part "hesitating to take with him those means which might preserve his own life or affect that of the plundered" and maybe not even before "in the event of resistance". – m69 Mar 18 '17 at 8:17
  • @lawrence I disagree with your #2. The OP asked for the subject of the word "confines." "Depredations" is the object of "confines," not the subject. The subject is "violator." My answer below explains why. – NenyaQueen Mar 19 '17 at 5:11
  • @NenyaQueen I disagree, but I'm happy to hear from others. My reasoning on #2 is this: taking confines as the head word, the clause in question is "confines his depredations to acts of private pilfering", so we only have his depredations and acts of private pilfering to choose from. I'd say that the former is the subject and the acts are the object of the confinement. (Test: what does he confine? His depredations. What does he confine them to? The acts of private pilfering.) I don't think violator is within the (lexical? syntactic?) scope of the word confines. – Lawrence Mar 19 '17 at 5:49
  • ... Violator is part of the enclosing independent clause (starting with "the daring violator), but Q2 didn't ask for the subject of that clause. – Lawrence Mar 19 '17 at 5:54
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I agree with you that this is a confusing statement! This answer is lengthy because I want to answer your questions thoroughly.

The first step to making it more understandable is to remove the unnecessary commas. (I'll focus on the second sentence, as that is the one you asked about specifically.)

This sagacious edict renders robbery unfrequent; the daring violator of the laws, hesitating to take with him those means which might preserve his own life or affect that of the plundered in the event of resistance, generally confines his depredations to acts of private pilfering, and a robbery attended with murder is, of course, very rarely perpetrated.

As you can see, removing the superfluous commas makes a big difference in readability. I can't give you an explanation for why the incorrect commas were there, but I can explain why the remaining commas are grammatically correct (which will also help to answer your first question).

Question 1a. What kind of grammar the sentence ", Hesitating..." has?

The commas after "laws" and before "generally" create a participial phrase. In this paragraph, "hesitating" is a participle.

A participle is a verb form that functions as an adjective by modifying nouns and pronouns. A participle can be either a present participle or a past participle. A participial phrase includes the participle, plus any modifiers and complements.

http://www.k12reader.com/term/participle-phrase/

In this case, "hesitating to take with him those means which might preserve his own life or affect that of the plundered in the event of resistance" is a participial phrase. The phrase modifies the noun "violator."

The commas are required at either end of this participial phrase because it is non-restrictive.

A phrase is nonrestrictive (also called nonessential) if we know exactly who or what is being written about without the phrase. A nonrestrictive phrase is simply adding extra information. Nonrestrictive phrases need commas around them.

https://www.englishgrammar101.com/module-8/verbals-and-phrases/lesson-3/restrictive-and-nonrestrictive-participial-phrases

Because we know whom the participial phrase modifies ("violator"), and because the information the phrase provides is extra, not essential, we know the phrase is nonrestrictive. As such, it must be set apart by commas.

Question 1b. What is the meaning of this sentence?

Let's back up to the beginning of your quoted material. The first sentence states that, by law, a person convicted of robbery will not be sentenced to death " . . . provided he neither uses, nor carries, any offensive weapon."

This means that despite the fact that circumstances may arise during a robbery to threaten the safety of either the thief or the person the thief is robbing, thieves rarely carry offensive weaponry. They know that, should they be carrying weapons when they are caught, they could be sentenced to death. They also know that if they are not carrying weapons when they are caught, they cannot be sentenced to death. Therefore, thieves tend to limit themselves " . . . to acts of private pilfering." Additionally, robberies that result in murders are rare.

Question 2. What is the subject of confines?

"Violator" is the subject of "confines." The clause that precedes the semicolon has its own subject and verb, so start after the semicolon.

The daring violator of the laws, hesitating to take with him those means which might preserve his own life or affect that of the plundered in the event of resistance, generally confines . . . .

To find the subject and verb in a sentence, break down the sentence to its simplest form. The subject has to be a noun or pronoun, and the verb has to be, well, a verb: "The" is a definite article. "Daring" is an adjective. "Violator" is a noun. "Of the laws" is a prepositional phrase. As previously discussed, "hesitating" through "resistance" is a participial phrase. "Generally" is an adverb. "Confines" is a verb. There you have your subject and verb: "violator" and "confines."

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The quotation you ask about come from a book published in 1801, which explains the separation of nowhere into two words, the abundance of commas, and above all the length of the two sentences that you reproduce in your question.

The portion of the second sentence that you seem to be primarily interested in reads as follows:

the daring violator of the laws, hesitating to take with him those means, which might preserve his own life, or affect that of the plundered, in the event of resistance, generally confines his depredations to acts of private pilfering, and a robbery, attended with murder, is, of course, very rarely perpetrated.


1. The grammar and meaning of the 'hesitating' clause

Syntactically, the wording "the daring violator of the laws, hesitating to take..." is a lot like "my dog, pausing to sniff...": hesitating describes an action of "the daring violator," just as sniffing describes the action of "my dog." The entire four-piece phrase "hesitating to take with him those means, which might preserve his own life, or affect that of the plundered, in the event of resistance," is called a participial phrase. The entire participial phrase modifies the subject ("the daring violator [of the laws]"), as if the phrase were an elaborate adjective.

The meaning of the phrase

hesitating to take with him those means, which might preserve his own life, or affect that of the plundered, in the event of resistance,

is something like this:

afraid to carry weapons that he might otherwise use either to defend himself or to attack a victim who tried to resist his criminal acts,

The difficulty you may have in making sense of the original wording is probably due less the grammatical structure that the author uses (although it is rather elaborate) than to the author's early-nineteenth-century word choice.


2. The subject of 'confines'

Because "hesitating to take with him those means, which might preserve his own life, or affect that of the plundered, in the event of resistance," is an extended participial phrase, we can remove it and not alter the basic subject-verb structure of the underlying sentence. Removing it, we get this:

the daring violator of the laws generally confines his depredations to acts of private pilfering, and a robbery, attended with murder, is, of course, very rarely perpetrated.

It should be clear from this simplified version of the quoted wording that the subject of "confines" is "the daring violator [of the laws]," or, reduced to a single noun, "violator." A second subject ("a robbery") and a second verb ("is ... perpetrated") appear later in the passage, but they are not relevant to the question of what subject the verb "confines" attaches to.

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