I'm trying to analyze this long noun phrase (NP) syntactically:

The assertion that an understanding of human nature in the light of evolutionary theory can help us to identify the means by which we may achieve some of our social and political goals, including various ideas of equality, as well as assessing the possible costs and benefits of doing so.

I don't understand why "assess" is used with "ing" here. I understand the NP in this way:

The assertion that A can help us to identify B and [can also help us] to assess C.

  • Both work for me. I do not see either a grammatical or a readability issue here. Also, note that the author uses the preposition to with "help" suggesting a more formal style.
    – Kris
    Dec 21, 2019 at 8:43

1 Answer 1


There is no verb in that sentence. Furthermore, even if there had been a verb there are two concepts ('to identify ...") and ('assessing...') that are at the same logical level so 'to identify...' and 'to assess...' would be a step in the direction of comprehensibility. Whoever wrote that did not know what they wanted to communicate, and, consequently, produced something that sounds good if read aloud provided you don't ask yourself what idea is the writer trying to convey.

  • +1 An excellent analysis. Dec 20, 2019 at 23:56
  • Indeed. Sometimes, the only mistake is to assume that another writer can actually write coherently. The quoted sentence is awful.
    – KrisW
    Dec 21, 2019 at 1:41
  • 1
    The writer is one of the most respected philosophers alive: Peter Singer. What I quoted was not intended to be a 'sentence'. It's an item from a list. Actually it's a noun phrase with 'assertion' as its head and 'that an understanding of human nature ...' as its modifier.
    – apadana
    Dec 21, 2019 at 6:39
  • JeremyC: The fact that there is no verb should have been the great give away. OP called the fragment an NP, right? How could one not see that? Also @KrisW
    – Kris
    Dec 21, 2019 at 8:41
  • Fair enough, I missed that point, but I still maintain that "assessing" is incorrect, and agree with @KrisW that the writing, respected philosopher or not, is awful.
    – JeremyC
    Dec 21, 2019 at 10:21

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