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I have some trouble with the last sentence of this paragraph from Huxley's "The Struggle for Existence in Human Society"(1888):

The history of civilization–that is, of society–on the other hand, is the record of the attempts which the human race has made to escape from this position. The first men who substituted the state of mutual peace for that of mutual war, whatever the motive which impelled them to take that step, created society. But, in establishing peace, they obviously put a limit upon the struggle for existence. Between the members of that society, at any rate, it was not to be pursued à outrance. And of all the successive shapes which society has taken, that most nearly approaches perfection in which the war of individual against individual is most strictly limited.

Does this translate into more modern/simpler English to the following?

And of all the successive shapes which society has taken, [the shape] that most nearly approaches perfection [is the one] in which the war of individual against individual is most strictly limited.

What troubles me is that the verb be seems to be omitted. Was that acceptable in 19th century English? I am only familiar with this in other languages (say Russian or Latin). Or am I misunderstanding this sentence?

  • It could also be "that which most nearly approaches...". But agree with you about the missing verb phrase. – Barmar Dec 13 '18 at 0:36
  • I believe your translation is more or less correct. It's written in a starchy style that many English philosophers preferred back then, but which often leads to ambiguity or simply confusion when read by a modern reader. – Hot Licks Dec 13 '18 at 2:33
  • I think your interpretation is correct. The original is poorly expressed, to my mind - is it even possible that it's a publisher's error and another version might have a missing word? – Mynamite Jan 12 at 4:31
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The primary verb in this sentence is "approaches". To see that, let's start paring off the extraneous bits.

Instead of "And of all the successive shapes which society has taken," let's just say "of all shapes".

Instead of "in which the war of individual against individual is most strictly limited," let's just say "in which war is limited".

The sentence now reads as "Of all shapes, that most nearly approaches perfection in which war is limited." Since the first "that" translates to "that shape out of all shapes", we can rewrite this as "That shape most nearly approaches perfection in which war is limited." Even more simply, we can say "That shape in which war is limited most nearly approaches perfection."

Ergo, "that shape" is the subject of the sentence, and "approaches" is the main verb.

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What's going on here is that there is a relative clause ("in which the war of individual against individual is most strictly limited") that is not placed directly after its antecedent. Probably, the relative clause was put at the end because it is longer than the main clause.

The sentence means the same thing as

And of all the successive shapes which society has taken, [that (shape) [in which the war of individual against individual is most strictly limited]] most nearly approaches perfection.

As Allen R. Brady's answer said, the finite verb of the main clause is "approaches". The finite verb of the relative clause is "is". There are no missing verbs.

  • Well at least the meaning is close to my original interpretation. Do you have any other examples of relative clauses being at the end of the sentence rather that after their antecedent? In other words, why do you think this is more likely than a zero copula? Or would that alternative present itself differently meaning my original interpretation doesn't make sense? – Cimbali Feb 11 at 16:17

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