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I was reading "Heart of Darkness", by J. Conrad and I came to this sentence: "A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness."

My question is: what ran out to sea in vanishing flatness? The haze or the low shores? I don't know if there's any grammatical rule that defines how to recognize the relative clause's antecedent.

Thanks

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2 Answers 2

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The shores are running out to sea, there are two clues as to why: firstly the description of "running out to sea in vanishing flatness" is much more likely to be a description of shores than haze; the second clue is the position of the description, it follows immediately after the noun "shores" so would usually be taken to relate to that.

If the description had applied to the haze then it would have followed the word "haze". For example Conrad might have written "A haze that looked like woodsmoke hung over the shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness." In that case there would have been no ambiguity at all. I can see why he didn't but I think you can see my point.

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    "firstly the description of "running out to sea in vanishing flatness" is much more likely to be a description of shores than haze." Why is that more likely? Haze or fog close to the water would flatten as it approached the horizon. Jan 31, 2019 at 19:27
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    @TaliesinMerlin I'd agree if it was mist, mist often tends to settle into flat sheets but haze is much less defined than mist. Even if you are right my second, and more important, point about the relative positions of the noun and adverbial clause still stands.
    – BoldBen
    Jan 31, 2019 at 19:53
  • Haze also means mist, especially in uses predating modern meteorology. OED: " A fog or thick mist, or something resembling this [...]." As to the other point, it neglects the phenomenon of extraposition, or relative clauses being moved to the end of the sentence rather than immediately following the noun phrase they modify. Jan 31, 2019 at 19:58
  • @PeterShor Shores can run out to sea in the same way that jetties and breakwaters can run out to sea. Haze is not a synonym of mist since haze is an atmospheric disruption which can be caused by mist but can also be caused by thermal conditions or differences in humidity of the air (mist is a cloud of condensed water). For example heat haze which is definitely not mist. Even when haze is caused by condensed water vapour its nature is different from mist.
    – BoldBen
    Feb 14, 2023 at 0:04
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There is no grammatical rule that defines the relative clause's antecedent here. Relative clauses can be placed in extraposition from the noun phrase it's modifying, meaning that they can be moved to the rightmost part of the sentence. Extraposition becomes more likely if the relative clause would introduce a substantive interruption to the flow of the sentence. So we can't rely on proximity alone to understand the relative clause.

In analyzing this sentence, there are two possibilities:

  • The relative clause (that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness) modifies haze. "On the low shores" is a prepositional phrase that acts as an adverbial of place modifying rested. (Where did the haze rest? On the shores.) The extraposition of the relative clause avoids splitting the haze rested from on the low shores, which work together to describe the haze, its action, and its position. A logical progression is created from the haze's initial location to where it reaches. In other words, the haze (resting on the low shores) extends to the offing or the horizon.
  • The relative clause modifies low shores. They go into the vanishing flatness - the shore into the sea, or perhaps the shore into the haze and the sea. While haze would remain the grammatical subject of the sentence, a lot of importance would be placed on the description of the shore.

Either is grammatically possible. Within the passage, this creates a blending or muddling effect on the horizon similar to that found at the start of this sentence shortly prior to the one we're discussing:

In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint ...

That already dabbles in literary interpretation beyond the standard for EL&U though, so I'll stop there.

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