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On page 11 of his 1996 book, A History of Western Political Thought, J.S. McClelland writes the following 78-word sentence:

The constraints which a properly constituted polis based upon law were supposed to put on the more outlandish tendencies of human greed and ambition are easily confused with ideas of constitutional constraint and limitation which since the eighteenth century inform the Western European and American traditions of liberal constitutionalism, and the ease of that confusion is compounded by the fact that modern constitutional theory is in part based on a particular reading of ancient constitutional thought and practice.

My problem is that I find it hard to divide this sentence into small parts so I can understand it better. The subject is the sentence’s first occurrence of the word constraints, but is its verb were or is its verb are?

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    The "skeleton" here is: The constraints are easily confused with ideas. HTH – michael.hor257k Jul 17 '17 at 2:21
  • Then what is the subject of 'were supposed to '? – Arctic Tony Jul 17 '17 at 2:28
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    The constraints are easily confused with ideas... – Jim Jul 17 '17 at 2:36
  • @ArcticTony Polis were supposed. – michael.hor257k Jul 17 '17 at 2:48
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    Yikes, who can blame you! – ab2 Jul 17 '17 at 2:57
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The constraints which a properly constituted polis based upon law were supposed to put on the more outlandish tendencies of human greed and ambition are easily confused with ideas of constitutional constraint and limitation which since the eighteenth century inform the Western European and American traditions of liberal constitutionalism, and the ease of that confusion is compounded by the fact that modern constitutional theory is in part based on a particular reading of ancient constitutional thought and practice.

Break it down:

The constraints (which a properly constituted polis based upon law were supposed to put on the more outlandish tendencies of human greed and ambition) are easily confused with ideas of constitutional constraint and limitation (which - since the eighteenth century - inform the Western European and American traditions of liberal constitutionalism,) and the ease of that confusion is compounded by the fact that modern constitutional theory is in part based on a particular reading of ancient constitutional thought and practice.

HTH.

  • 'which a properly constituted polis based upon law were supposed to put on the more outlandish tendencies of human greed and ambition' This already is a complete sentence, how can it be in another complete sentence? – Arctic Tony Jul 17 '17 at 5:11
  • @anongoodnurse Good to see you active on the site again. – Lawrence Jul 17 '17 at 5:44
  • @ArcticTony The clause you quoted in your comment, "which ... ambition," is not a complete sentence; it is a relative clause (modifying "constraints"). – Andreas Blass Jul 17 '17 at 5:53
  • @ArcticTony The polis should have placed the constraints on the tendencies. – tchrist Jul 17 '17 at 6:02
  • Can you help me on skype? I'm still confused with it. The skeleton is ' the constraints are easily confused with...', I'm good with that part. But how to break down 'which a properly constituted polis based upon law were supposed to put on the more outlandish tendencies of human greed and ambition'? My way of breaking it down is: a properly constituted polis / based upon law / were supposed to put on / the more... But since it starts with which, then it can't be a complete sentence as it is now. – Arctic Tony Jul 17 '17 at 6:17
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This has gotten to be too long for a comment. The asker asks in a comment:

How possibly can it be that in one sentence there is two parts containing complete structure? 'polis were supposed to' and ' the constraints are easily confused with' ? In my understanding, 'polis were supposed to' is supposed to be 'The constraints which a properly constituted polis based upon law supposed to put on'. Right?

and

The skeleton is 'the constraints are easily confused with...', I'm good with that part. But how to break down 'which a properly constituted polis based upon law were supposed to put on the more outlandish tendencies of human greed and ambition'? My way of breaking it down is: a properly constituted polis / based upon law / were supposed to put on / the more... But since it starts with which, then it can't be a complete sentence as it is now. – Arctic Tony 7 hours ago edit

Because you're reading it wrong. The connecting which is acting as an object here not asa subject. A simpler sentence illustrating this might be

The color which you wanted to paint the house is not available.

We could say that the essential skeleton is "the color is not available", but it isn't accurate to call "you wanted to paint the house" an embedded independent clause because there's an object missing here which you wouldn't be accounting for; namely, the color. You wanted to paint the house the color, and the which is linking that up to the main sentence.

That's exactly what's happening in McClelland's sentence, only it's harder to see there.

Perhaps you're thinking its using "to put on" like when someone puts their coat on, and this is leading you to imagine there is a complete independent clause embedded here. There is not, because this which here is also serving as an object. The subject of the main clause, "the constraints" is therefore the object of the embedded one. The people were supposed to put the constraints on the tendencies. That's a complete sentence. This isn't, because "the constraints" is pulled out of that otherwise complete sentence at the top to serve as the subject of the main clause even though it's the object of the subordinate one.

It's exactly like what happens with this simplified sentence:

The constraints that the people were supposed to put on the tendencies are confused with something else.

So the people were supposed to put the constraints on the tendencies. The essential constituents of my simplified sentence are parsed this way:

(S (NP (NP The constraints)
       (SBAR (WHNP that)
             (S (NP the people)
                (VP were
                    (VP supposed
                        (S (VP to
                               (VP put
                                   (PP on
                                       (NP the tendencies))))))))))
   (VP are
       (ADJP confused
             (PP with
                 (NP something else))))
   .)

I hope that when looked at this way it becomes clear to you. McClelland could have been kinder on your brain if he had said "a polis was" instead of "a polis were", which is also confusing. But he didn't.

  • I have never liked a forum like this one for the existence of people like you. After your thorough illustration that whole sentence comes clear to me. Thanks. – Arctic Tony Jul 18 '17 at 0:55
  • I still have a small question. Why is it 'the more tendencies' instead of ' more tendencies'? 'the' is due to be left out. – Arctic Tony Jul 18 '17 at 1:06
  • @ArcticTony It's not "the more tendencies"; it's "the more outlandish tendencies", so they're talking about tendencies that are more outlandish. – tchrist Jul 18 '17 at 1:49

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