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This is a sentence from A Farewell To Arms:

We both went flat and with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick.

  1. How could the smell be heard? You hear a sound not smell a sound.

  2. What does singing off mean? I am really clueless of this sentence.

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  • We flattened ourselves. Our senses were assaulted – by the flash and crump of the shellfire, and the smell [of cordite]; by the singing the fragments made as they flew past, and the rattle of falling brick. / Please restrict 'questions' to single questions in future. Interpretation of lengthier extracts (as here) is off-topic, but will no doubt be welcome on Literature SE. May 3, 2018 at 8:12
  • You are meant to understand the sentence as though there were another 'we' between 'smell' and 'heard'. With the flash came the smell and the sounds. I don't know exactly what Hemingway meant by 'singing off', but the shell fragments would make a sound flying through the air. May 3, 2018 at 8:20
  • @EdwinAshworth The question is closely related to the syntax here, however. I think you're being a bit harsh with the 1 question here. It's not like there's a list! ;) May 3, 2018 at 11:00
  • The author could be a synesthete, able to transfer perceptions between sight, hearing taste et al. or could be showing sounds of dementia or traumatic brain injury. Or they just be trying to be poetic.
    – Mitch
    May 3, 2018 at 12:20
  • singing off is quite clever: to sing is used to describe a high-pitched or buzzing, and sing off means the fragment of brick were coming off the brick and making that kind of noise as they did.
    – Lambie
    May 3, 2018 at 12:32

1 Answer 1

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We both went flat and with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick.

The basic structure of the sentence is actually like this, where the single subject We both appears with two coordinated verb phrases:

  • We [went flat] and [heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick].

The preposition phrase with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell is structured like this:

  • with [the flash and bump of the burst] and [the smell]

Here we see the preposition with occurring with a coordination of two noun phrases. Here the preposition with means something like at the very same time as. It is an adjunct supplying additional information. It belongs inside the second coordinate of the larger sentence:

  • We both [went flat] and [with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick].

The sentence would be easier to parse had Hemingway used commas or dahses to mark out the preposition phrase:

  • We both went flat and, with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell, heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick.

  • We both went flat and—with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell—heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick.

However, neither of these would have been in keeping with Hemingway's style!


The noun singing here refers to the high pitched ringing noise made by the fragments.

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  • You seem to end up here [...] with the flash and bump of the burst and the smell| heard the singing off of the fragments and the rattle of falling brick [...] but start out differently. Just wondering why.
    – Lambie
    May 3, 2018 at 12:27
  • @Lambie Hi, sorry, I don't quite understand the question. (hard morning and no coffee!) Are you asking why the brackets are in different places at the beginning and end of the post? May 3, 2018 at 12:33
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    Thank you very much! I think I need some more time to understand it hundred percent but it sure did help me.
    – John
    May 3, 2018 at 12:37
  • @John Glad it helped. Feel free to ask if you have any questions. May 3, 2018 at 12:41
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    Thank you. It was not bad before, but I would have started with the structure you provide in the bullet points, and would have forgone the couldas. (Hope you got some coffee. :)
    – Lambie
    May 3, 2018 at 13:24

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