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I am reading a paragraph in English. English is obviously not my first language. I like to confirm my understanding of a sentence.

This is the sentence.

Copernicus had offered his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy, moving the sun to the center of the solar system and letting the Earth, now just one of a number of similar planets, circle round it.

In the sentence, "moving the sun to the center of the solar system and ....." refers to "replacement" not "the old Ptolemaic astronomy".

Am I right? Could you tell me which one it is referring to?

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    Neither one, actually. Or maybe both. The gerund clause moving the sun from ... circle round it -- i.e, the entire last part of the sentence -- is in apposition to the entire noun phrase his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy. Like all appositive, it elaborates on the nature of the noun it's in apposition with. You have to consider that most long clauses don't modify one word, but rather a larger construction that that word is in. Here, both words are in the same NP, so it's that NP that's the coreferent. Dec 31, 2019 at 19:34
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    You can also consider it a sort of adverbial clause; you could add in a by or in and it would retain roughly the same meaning, and you could even switch the two clauses around (“by/in moving the sun to the center and letting the Earth… circle round it, Copernicus had offered…”). What moving here definitely is not, though, is the head of a reduced relative clause (‘which was moving…’) which modifies a specific element in the preceding clause. Your phrasing seems to imply that that is how you interpreted it, but that is not what it is. Jan 1, 2020 at 9:45
  • Since Copernicus did the metaphorical moving (ie proposed the new theory), I'd say 'moving the sun ...' elaborates on the whole main clause. 'C did A: he did B ...' Sep 27, 2020 at 15:59
  • The comma-separated phrase is what's known as a "parenthetical".
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 21, 2021 at 15:13

4 Answers 4

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The issue is what exactly the entire supplement (moving the sun to the center of the solar system and letting the Earth, now just one of a number of similar planets, circle round it) is stating something about.

There are two plausible candidates:

(1) Copernicus

(2) his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy

Note that the old Ptolemaic astronomy cannot be a candidate in context.

Semantically, the supplement may be stating something about either (1) or (2), but syntactically, it's stating something only about (1) for the following reasons:

First, the supplement can be placed before or after (1) without changing the meaning:

Moving the sun to the center of the solar system and letting the Earth, now just one of a number of similar planets, circle round it, Copernicus had offered his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy.

Copernicus, moving the sun to the center of the solar system and letting the Earth, now just one of a number of similar planets, circle round it, had offered his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy.

If the supplement were stating something about (2) his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy, placing the supplement before or after (1) would have been impossible or would have changed the meaning.

Second, let's replace the verb offered with retracted and see if the sentence still works:

?Copernicus had retracted his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy, moving the sun to the center of the solar system and letting the Earth, now just one of a number of similar planets, circle round it.

This doesn't seem to make sense at all, because retracting his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy contradicts what the supplement describes. If the supplement were stating something about (2) his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy, replacing offered with retracted shouldn't have rendered the sentence nonsensical.

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Here is how I would interpret your sentence:

Ptolemaic astronomy considered Earth the center of the universe. What the sentence is stating is that Copernicus determined that the sun was the center of the solar system, and therefore Earth was not the center (or the most important) planet in the solar system, and that Earth was one of several planets orbiting the sun.

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  • Hi, thanks for dropping the answer. I got the answer after Googling Ptolemaic Model and Copernicus Model. I just want to confirm my understanding so that I can use it in my future reading experience. Jan 1, 2020 at 4:27
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It is appositive to "Copernicus". It says that Copernicus was moving the sun, etc. Given the context, it also communicates that that this was the result of offering his replacement. So it can be seen as modifying "offered"; it's saying "Copernicus had offered his replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy, and in offering his replacement, he moved the sun". "moving" is not referring to "replacement", as it's characterizing the action (verb) of "offer", not the thing (noun) of "replacement", and it's definitely not referring to "the old Ptolemaic astronomy".

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  • The broadened usage 'Copernicus's replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy moved the sun to the center of the solar system' is quite acceptable, so 'moving the sun to the center of the solar system' may also refer to 'Copernicus's replacement for the old Ptolemaic astronomy'. Feb 24, 2021 at 12:05
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Your question isn't easy to answer, as you have written it.

But the Ptolemaic astronomy put the Earth at the centre of the universe, and assumed that everything else rotated around it.

Copernicus decided that the planets orbited around the Sun, not the Earth.

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