sample taken from a Toefl exam

Just as painted designs on Greek pots may seem today to be purely decorative, whereas in fact they were carefully and precisely worked out so that at the time, [sic] their meaning was clear, so it is with Chinese pots.


Hi everybody, my question is about the antecedent of "it", and what is the reference of "was"?

  • This passage seems to cause a number of difficulties "so that at the time" and on the Internet
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 22 '19 at 8:46
  • You could say that the antecedent is the entire preceding passage (an adjunct).
    – BillJ
    Jul 22 '19 at 16:58
  • @BillJ on all the sites where this passage is cited, see link above, there is the same comma.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 22 '19 at 17:08
  • @Mari-LouA Do you mind. It's an error and should be deleted. Or it could be parenthesised.
    – BillJ
    Jul 22 '19 at 17:15
  • 1
    @BillJ "I don't think anyone would be tempted to insert a comma after "clear", so why insert one in the preposed construction?" nobody inserted a comma, it's in the original text. Just like deadrat mentioned in the other question, which I posted a link to, users can point out that the extra comma is either ungrammatical or superfluous.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 22 '19 at 18:50

I am distilling down the verbiage in each example, and actually rephrasing things a bit in the second in order to get it to express its essential meaning in a shorter fashion.

1. It.

Just as designs on Greek pots seem decorative, so it (designs seeming decorative) is with Chinese pots.

2. Their / was.

Although designs on Greek pots may seem decorative (without meaning) today, their (the designs on Greek pots) meaning was clear (when the pots were created).

  • 1
    Am I understanding you correctly that you don’t think the original sentence as quoted is completely comprehensible? Or are you referring only to it not being possible to make your distilled version completely comprehensible without some adjustments? Because the original sentence is perfectly comprehensible and not at all awkward to me. Jul 22 '19 at 12:53
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, the original sentence itself is unclear. One of many issues is they were carefully and precisely worked out so that at the time time. That doesn't make any sense. What role does so that play in the clause set off by commas? It would make sense if a comma came after it. Similarly, the comma after was clear appears to be a comma splice. It might not be, if everything earlier is parenthetical; however, there are three commas before that phrase. This is mostly to do with punctuation—but I can't determine what the grammar is supposed to be because of that. Jul 22 '19 at 14:00
  • I don’t see anything unclear about it… here’s a rephrasing of my understanding: “Chinese and Greek pots have this in common: to us in the present their painted designs may seem to be purely decorative, but they were in fact carefully and precisely made in such a way that, to the Greeks/Chinese of the time, their meaning was clear”. The only ambiguity to me is whether their meaning refers to the meaning of the designs or of the pots, and that’s a minute difference. Jul 22 '19 at 14:06
  • 1
    Oh, I think I see the source of your confusion now: the comma after at the time is just there to separate that (adverbial) from the following clause; the sort-of-parenthetical clause is “whereas… was clear”. Setting off at the time with a comma on both sides (“so that, at the time, their meaning…”) would have been clearer, I agree. Jul 22 '19 at 14:09
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, I can likely rephrase (or at least re-punctuate) the sentence so it makes sense. If I strike out those things between what could be parenthetical comma pairs, things are left in a strange state. Similarly, those things in what I might think of as parenthetical text are odd too. At the very least, I think one of the commas needs to be removed—or another one inserted. Jul 22 '19 at 14:15

The subject of was is meaning.

It refers to the entire language before so, as @BillJ says in his comment.

As you can tell from comments, the punctuation is poor. It would have been better as two sentences. The writer is trying to say that what’s true of Greek pots is also true of Chinese pots.

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