47

I am reading a book and the following phrase left me flabbergasted!

She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off. [1]

Does it mean that her fingers were sliced off a few seconds after she pulled them back? Or did she avoid that horrible fate by pulling them back?

How would one differentiate these two meanings (except by using the context)?

Edit: I did not specify the next part, because I wanted unbiased answers. The latter are satisfying and the next part is:

Rachel sat down in the darkness. An oscilloscope scraped against the ceiling until the table cracked and collapsed under it.

[1] from Hyperion by Dan Simmons

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    Aside from the ambiguity of the sentence, and how it could be rephrased, doesn't the book actually answer the question shortly afterwards, one way or the other? (I can also see the author using the ambiguity intentionally in order to build up suspense.) Or is the fate of her fingers left in doubt up until the last word? – Jason Bassford Apr 23 '18 at 20:57
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    Reminder to everyone: Don't answer in comments. If you have an answer, leave it as an answer :) – V2Blast Apr 23 '18 at 23:01
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    @V2Blast: If you start pulling at that thread, this whole site could unravel. – Robusto Apr 23 '18 at 23:53
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    Why are so many people having a conniption? This is fiction, and the rhythm of the words is as important as the literal meaning. Yes, there are a dozen ways to make it less ambiguous, but probably few of them would maintain the author's characteristic rhythm. – Hot Licks Apr 23 '18 at 23:53
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    This made for a surprising Hot Network Question title coming from EnglishSE – bendl Apr 26 '18 at 17:59
102

The one thing that seems to be agreed by the answers so far is that the intended meaning is obvious: she pulled back her hand seconds before her fingers (to use questioner’s own word) could be sliced off.

The word could in this context has counterfactual force.

It has been pointed out that the same grammatical structure can transform the semantics by the substitution of the word head for the word fingers. So there is a grammatical ambiguity. And it could be avoided by the substitution of the subjunctive could.

But wait a minute. Here is another example. A parent shouts at her/his child, shivering in an icy lake:

Get out of the water before you die of cold!

Nobody will imagine that the parent intends the child to get out of the water and then die of cold. Clearly there is a well-established preventative usage of before in addition to the temporal one.

So should the writer go the extra mile and prevent any possible ambiguity by inserting could?

No. The whole point of the situation is surely to emphasise how close she came to losing her fingers. That is done by using the original words and so rendering the tense moment as vivid as possible.

So the sentence is grammatically ambiguous but contextually clear and in literary terms justified.

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    TL;DR: colloquial, +1. OP is ESL if I had to guess. I had to read the sentence a few times to even understand their perspective. – Mazura Apr 24 '18 at 0:32
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    Best and most sensible answer: I upvotes! – English Student Apr 24 '18 at 2:17
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    This is correct, as it is is simply the use of "before" with the meaning "In preference to" or "rather than" an accepted definition in any dictionary (google it). – crobar Apr 24 '18 at 9:12
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    +1. Though "before they would have been sliced off" sounds more typical that "could". – Nigel Touch Apr 24 '18 at 11:11
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    Stop in the name of love lest you break my heart. Lest you accuse me take a look at yourself. Etc. Doesn't sound quite as... current, I suppose. – Chaim Apr 24 '18 at 22:22
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The sentence is grammatically ambiguous, and you have to use common sense about the situation and intent to disambiguate it. If it had been:

She begged for mercy a few seconds before her fingers were sliced off.

it would be clear that she no longer has her fingers and the begging simply preceded the slicing.

But in the given sentence, there doesn't seem to be any reason to mention pulling back her fingers unless this action prevented the slicing.

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    I can imagine situations where you would mention pulling back fingers even if they were sliced off, but I would express such an occurrence with words like "tried" or "although" to emphasize that she was unsuccessful. – Kamil Drakari Apr 23 '18 at 20:27
  • I'm not sure about that. I thought about adding another case like "Her fingers shook before ..." – Barmar Apr 23 '18 at 21:52
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    Good example, nevertheless if it had been: She **successfully** begged for mercy a few seconds before her fingers were sliced off. then I would understand that she kept her fingers. The meaning (and fingers) comes and goes! It's a really subtly ambiguous sentence! – xDaizu Apr 25 '18 at 7:53
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    @xDaizu Or perhaps the "mercy" was that she lost her fingers rather than her whole arm. – David Richerby Apr 25 '18 at 16:30
  • @DavidRicherby Then you'd expect it to say "before only her fingers were cut off." The point of all this is that there's much more to writing understandably than just proper grammar. – Barmar Apr 25 '18 at 16:42
17

"She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off."

So, does she still have her fingers? The sentence could use disambiguation.

disambiguate TFD

To establish a single grammatical or semantic interpretation for

As in:

"She pulled back her fingers a second before they would have been sliced off."

or

"She pulled back her fingers a second late and they were sliced off."

Likely this question is from a sentence in Dan Simmons book Hyperion google books. It's SciFi. The paragraphs following the sentence are unrevealing as to the fate of the fingers. I have not read the book. Indeed it is an ambiguous sentence. Poetic license!

  • This is my favourite wording. "Would have been" is what I immediately jumped to as the unambiguous, "correct" phrasing – theonlygusti Apr 24 '18 at 16:31
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    Yes, IBF, ‘poetic licence’ is the phrase. Thank you for reminding me. – Tuffy Apr 25 '18 at 7:31
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Assuming that the logic is correct, she did not lose her fingers.

What I mean to say, is that, logically speaking, if her fingers are not in the place where they are to be cut off a very short time before the action would happen, then she will not lose her fingers.

So, semantically speaking, if you qualify an action with a precise point in time (in this case, her fingers getting cut off), and she performs some action in the second before that removes her fingers from the place where this action is supposed to occur, the slicing occurs, however, with the fingers absent from the slicing time and place, they are not cut off. Had she left her fingers, they would have been cut off.

I think the sentence is confusing in the first sense of instinct of reading it like the action occurred even though she pulled her fingers away, but I think what is actually happening is that the action is being linked to a point in time and so what is being referenced by name is not the action of her losing her fingers, but the point in time where she would have lost her fingers.

  • I agree that there is a strong inference that she avoided injury, but it is not at all clear. Suppose her fingers were originally in a position that they would be completely (or perhaps mostly) sliced off. At the last moment, "She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off". Pulling her fingers back does not insure or indicate that she didn't suffer any injury in the process ... perhaps half of each finger was sliced off. – Kevin Fegan Apr 24 '18 at 8:17
  • @KevinFegan I really doubt that. That would be reading too far into it. As Tuffy's excellent answer above indicates, there is a (strongly implied and likely true) sense of prevention of an action with the usage of before in this case. – psosuna Apr 24 '18 at 18:40
  • @psouna If you wish to interpret the sentence strictly, based solely on what is explicit, would it not mean that she moved her fingers some distance before something else happened to them, namely, getting cut off? There's no explicit mention in this statement that she moved them far enough, or even that the cutting was bound to a specific location. Perhaps the cutting device was portable, and attached to her hand the entire time. – jpaugh Apr 26 '18 at 18:20
  • @jpaugh It could very well be -- but that's not what we can gather out of what is being said. I also am not saying that what I'm saying is 100% factual, either; it could easily be that the fingers get cut off anyway. The thing I'm saying is that, if you speak of an action as a point in time, and another second preventative action as a separate point in time, and the preventative action happens before the first action, the first action gets negated as a result of the impossibility of the sequence. – psosuna Apr 26 '18 at 23:50
4

Your intriguing situation is covered by literary license as noted in the last line of @lbf's answer. According to Wikipedia,

Artistic license (also known as art license, historical license, dramatic license, poetic license, narrative license, licentia poetica, creative license, or simply license) is a colloquial term, sometimes a euphemism, used to denote the distortion of fact, alteration of the conventions of grammar or language, or rewording of pre-existing text made by an artist in the name of art.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artistic_license

The operative concept here is

alteration of the conventions of grammar or language

and the meaning is established by context. But the way you found it written,

she pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off

makes the meaning extremely clear and unequivocal to habitual readers of English (that her fingers just escaped being sliced off) although the most unambiguous and "correct" way of writing it would be

She pulled back her fingers a second before they could be sliced off

where "before + could" clearly establishes that the event did not occur, as rightly pointed out in the earlier excellent answer of @Tuffy.

But authors don't care.

Moreover, this type of usage with "before" being used to describe just avoiding something happening is a well established convention of its own in both the spoken and the written language, as the other answers already attest; random examples:

The rope pulled him up just inches before his head hit the ground (as in bungee jumping)

They managed to save their marriage before it collapsed

Get in out of the rain before you catch a cold.

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    In the broadest sense of language uses (i.e, not to do with authoring books), this has little to do with artistic license. Such ambiguous phrases are used in every day situations because they're shorter or easier to write/say than many unambiguous phrases. – jpaugh Apr 26 '18 at 18:16
  • Yes; and not even considered ambiguous by most readers @jpaugh. – English Student Apr 26 '18 at 19:05
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In the context of the book, IIRC, the sentence is very unambiguous. She pulled back her fingers and they were indeed sliced off a second later. This is science fiction and part of this series contains a character called the The Shrike (capitals intentional). The following text is taken from the wikipedia entry about the Hyperion Cantos

SPOILER ALERT

The region of the Tombs is also the home of the Shrike, a menacing half-mechanical, half-organic four armed creature that features prominently in the series ... It is portrayed as composed of razorwire, thorns, blades, and cutting edges, having fingers like scalpels and long, curved toe blades. It has the ability to control the flow of time, and may thus appear to travel infinitely fast. The Shrike may kill victims in a flash or it may transport them to an eternity of impalement

You may not have gotten to the point yet in the book or series where this explained in more detail. It is part of the mystery.

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    After reading this answer, I don't see how the information in it establishes that the fingers were indeed sliced off. – sumelic Apr 24 '18 at 17:39
  • @sumelic Major spoiler alert: it is more than twenty years ago that I read the book. Rereading the relevant passages (from google books as I don't own a copy) the loss of her fingers is a minor detail as she is subsequently encased in an anti-entropic field whose persistent after effect is that she becomes physically and mentally one day younger every day. She herself has no recollection of the event as she loses one day of memory every day as well. It is plausible that the anti-entropic field causes her physical state to be reset as well. You can read the sentence as is, no ambiguity. – GretchenV Apr 24 '18 at 20:08
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    I thought the sentence was perfectly unambiguous in the other direction, as one can't logically pull back their fingers before they are sliced off and then also have them sliced off. Though if anyone could do it, it would be the Shrike with its disrespect for time. However, if I recall, in that scene, weren't her fingers nearly removed by the door to the room being obscured by the closing walls, not the Shrike? – Tofystedeth Apr 25 '18 at 20:50
  • @Tofystedeth It was the ceiling coming down over a corridor shaft and you may be correct. Yet the Shrike is present in the room closing in on her as borne out in the next paragraph. I read the sentence as is, thinking that the author would have written "She pulled back her fingers a second before they would have been sliced off." as stated in another answer. – GretchenV Apr 25 '18 at 21:21
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    @GretchenV I think your answer, if slightly reworded, is useful for establishing that the meaning cannot be assumed unambiguous in the other direction; but it doesn't establish unambiguity in this direction, either. (I've never read the book, so I'm relying on your answer & comments alone to convince me.) – jpaugh Apr 26 '18 at 18:24
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There are two possibilities: (1) a careful writer and (2) a sloppy writer and editor.

In (1) the fingers were sliced off. That is what the sentence says. The unfortunate lady pulled her fingers back, but a skillful slicer-offer compensated for the pullback and advanced his slice. It wasn't as neat and as even and as clean a slice, but goodbye fingers. (Analogy: The tennis ball jumped to the side before she hit it. The player compensated for the jump.)

In (2) the writer and editor were sloppy. Other answers told us the correct wording if the lady kept her fingers. Only the subsequent sentences can tell us whether (1) or (2) is correct.

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    I was about to write something similar. I suspect that the only butchery occurring in the sample sentence is in how it is written. This sentence, severed from the rest of the story, tells us that the fingers were cleaved. A dissection of the whole story should have revealed that, leaving no one aghast by such a barbaric choice of words. But I suspect that was not the case. – Canis Lupus Apr 23 '18 at 21:19
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    It's only "sloppy" if it's being submitted to an academic journal. No experienced reader is going to be confused by this. -1 – jpmc26 Apr 23 '18 at 21:37
  • @jpmc26 - If you said that just before your head was removed, would you be in the mood to tell us how that turned out for you? :) – Canis Lupus Apr 23 '18 at 21:45
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    @CanisLupus No, but if I pulled my head down just before it was removed, I would. I agree with the answers that it could be disambiguated, but calling it "sloppy" is far too harsh a judgement. The disambiguated version is a lot wordier and doesn't read as smoothly, so it is at worst a stylistic choice. – jpmc26 Apr 23 '18 at 21:46
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    I think that the phrase: "a second before" actually saves the day. – Lambie Apr 23 '18 at 22:41

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