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I cannot make much sense of of the following passage from Moby-Dick:

It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin, and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.

Initially it crossed my mind that their here might be just a misspelling of there are/there're. Yet, after careful scrutiny, it seems to me that the sentence lacks a verb. I dared rewriting it:

It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin, and straightway appears their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.

Can this somewhat long-winded sentence be elliptical at the same time? If so - is the sentence correct? How would you rewrite it? Do you agree with my paraphrase?

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    I'd suggest as a paraphrase: ' ... the very same officers will, the next moment, adopt (1) their usual seats at the captain's table and (2) their (a) inoffensive ... (b) deprecatory and (c) humble air towards him ... And I'd agree that this is at best a zeugma best avoided. Utterly clutterly and long-winded. Oct 9 '20 at 10:41
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    I would say it is incorrect with they're or their. In the first case the word "air" needs to be removed to make sense; in the second something like "is apparent" needs to be added. Oct 9 '20 at 10:42
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    @Weather Vane I can't rule out the 'go down to ... their ... air' (ie 'adopt their [customary] submissive attitude') reading as a possibility. Zeugmas are grey-area grammatically speaking, and 'go down to a ... attitude' might once have been unremarkable. Oct 9 '20 at 10:58
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    Note that Melville wrote a novel, not a tweet, so him mistakingly using their for they're is quite unlikely Oct 10 '20 at 8:21
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    Pity he did't finish off the sentence - their inoffensive (etc.) what..?
    – Tim
    Oct 10 '20 at 19:04
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It is certainly obscure, and possibly a mistake - as Edwin Ashworth reasonably suggests. I am a little forgiving of a major author and offer a simpler but similar construction to illustrate a speculative meaning.

Please consider "I answer the question for readers, and straightway their comments."

This is a short (perhaps too short, and even ungrammatical) way of saying "I answer the question for readers, and straightway {come} their comments."

From the same perspective I suggest

"... and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air"

= "and straightway {comes} their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble{,} air".

My own additions are in {}.

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    I agree your reading. It's perfectly reasonable to assume an implicit but unstated verb such as come / appear in the cited context. Although it's not easy to shoe-horn a variant of TO BE in there, it seems to me verbs of that general ("copula"?) type can often be omitted, especially in "non-standard" contexts (literary, colloquial, whatever). Oct 9 '20 at 11:41
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    To me the only odd thing about the sentence (apart from its 19th century length and complexity) is the presence of the semi colon and the word 'this' before 'is marvellous'. If Melville had omitted them the end of the sentence would have run "...and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table is marvellous, sometimes most comical." That makes perfect sense to me and seems to be what Melville was saying.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 9 '20 at 14:52
  • @BoldBen I do not agree -";this" resolves potential ambiguity. Otherwise, one might think that "deprecatory and humble air towards him" is "marvellous, sometimes most comical". Not exactly the case. The last four words of the sentence describe the whole thing in its context specified also at the beginning of the sentence. P.S. Should your comment be under my question rather than under Anton's answer? If so, would you kindly move it there. I would then move mine. Oct 9 '20 at 23:00
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    @JerzyBrzóska I don't see that there is any ambiguity to be resolved. In my opinion it is exactly the officers' "inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air" which is "marvellous and sometimes most comical". What Melville is doing is contrasting the critical, almost rebellious, attitude of the officers above deck in the absence of the captain with their subservient attitude to him when he is present.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 10 '20 at 0:50
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No, "their" is used quite correctly here, as a possessive. It simply modifies "air". To simplify the phrasing by removing some words, it basically says:

Their inoffensive... air towards him... is marvellous.

The thrust of the passage seems to be that the attitude ("air") of naval officers towards their commander may be defiant in public view, and perhaps when that commander is not present to take offense. But those same officers are more conciliatory in a private setting when that commander is present.

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    Absolutely. The punctuation's a bit misleading. Technically, it's what grammary people call a left dislocation (another example might be "Your Dad, he's such a laugh"). We normally just put a comma, not a semicolon between the dislocated subject and the pronoun. Oct 9 '20 at 19:58
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore.: I don't see a left dislocation here. Can you clarify which element you're saying has been left-dislocated?
    – ruakh
    Oct 10 '20 at 0:27
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. "Their big, red ball" -- "Their big, not to say red ball" -- "Their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air (towards him)". I don't think it's a left dislocation, just a particularly lopsided enumeration.
    – tomsmeding
    Oct 10 '20 at 7:25
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    @tomsmeding But then the qhole quote would be of the form "(complete sentence), and (lopsided enumeration); this is ..." Oct 10 '20 at 8:26
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    @tomsmeding Granted it's a very long dislocated subject. But that is what it is! Oct 10 '20 at 11:40
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I agree broadly with Anton, but will suggest that the sentence in question is elliptical. Melville is saying that the officers' attitude on deck is certainly not the strangest thing - No! the strangest thing is their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him at dinner. The quote says:

It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin, and straightway [the observer will see that] the most strange thing is their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.

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I'm essentially agreeing with Edwin Ashworth's paraphrase, but I'll offer a second possibility as well; and I'll disagree with Anton's suggested paraphrase. First, here's the original paragraph again:

It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin, and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.

I've checked this against a couple of Google Books results and believe the punctuation is accurate. Melville's punctuation does not match how I would punctuate it. In particular I'd have to remove the comma after "sea-usages" and insert one after "humble":

It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin and, straightway, their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble, air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table; this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.

The punctuation above reflects Edwin Ashworth's paraphrase:

It is [strange] that while [on deck] some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly; yet let those very officers the next moment go down to (1) their customary dinner and (2) their inoffensive air towards him; this is marvellous.

The "go down to dinner and their inoffensive air" construction would be an example of zeugma (more or less). However, I admit that I'm troubled by the word "let" there. The paraphrase would work a heck of a lot better if that word "let" were deleted.

Anton suggested this paraphrase:

It is [strange] that while [on deck] some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly; yet let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner and, straightway, their inoffensive air towards him [becomes apparent]; this is marvellous.

I disagree with this paraphrase, because I agree with Anton that it is "perhaps too short, and even ungrammatical." Yes, it is ungrammatical to leave off the verb "[becomes apparent]" in that way. I don't think it was any less ungrammatical in Melville's time.

I suggest this third paraphrase:

It is [strange] that while [on deck] some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly; yet let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner and straightway their inoffensive air towards him is marvellous.

That is, if you assume that the final semicolon should be a dash

It is not the least among the strange things bred by the intense artificialness of sea-usages that while in the open air of the deck some officers will, upon provocation, bear themselves boldly and defyingly enough towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those very officers the next moment go down to their customary dinner in that same commander’s cabin, and straightway their inoffensive, not to say deprecatory and humble air towards him, as he sits at the head of the table — this is marvellous, sometimes most comical.

I'm quite sure there's a name for this rhetorical device of rewriting "That car is red" into a jumpy sort of "That car — it is red." It's not quite as broad as parataxis; but it's not coming to mind right now.

Anyway, I think that's the best paraphrase: "their air, it is comical." This reading isn't quite grammatical, but it is at least precedented. The subtle shades of connotative difference between semicolon (or colon) and dash are fairly recent traditions, I think.

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  • Repunctuating Moby-Dick has a long tradition, beginning with Herman Melville. I need only say "Northwestern Newberry" and leave it there. (-:
    – JdeBP
    Oct 10 '20 at 5:14
  • The "let" really suggests a "let A happen, and (then) B happens" Oct 10 '20 at 8:29
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    @HagenvonEitzen: I agree that that's what "let" wants to mean! The grammatical trouble for me is that what we have here is simply "let As happen, and Bs." If the "let" were gone, we'd have a simple statement that "As and Bs happen." If there were a followup "then C", we'd have a conditional statement that "let As and Bs happen, then C." Grammatically I'm not willing to read "let As happen, and [then] Bs [happen]" — both an implied "then" and an implied "happens" (nor a zeugmatic "happens" that needs to be reordered across the implied "then"). Oct 10 '20 at 14:50
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    Doesn’t the “straightway” fulfil the function of “then” in the “let A, then B” interpretation?
    – pbasdf
    Oct 11 '20 at 10:39
  • @pbasdf: No. There's a difference between Melville's "let As happen, and [let] straightway Bs [happen]" (zeugma, parallel construction) and the alternative "let As happen, and [then-without-'let'] straightway Bs [actually do happen]" (no zeugma, no parallel construction). The verb on the left-hand side, which zeugma is permitted to duplicate on the right-hand side, isn't really "happen", it's "let happen". (And really really it's "let go." The difficulty of determining the tense/mood/etc. of "happen/go" here is a major part of the trouble.) Oct 11 '20 at 15:11
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When I can't tell at a glance if the grammar is correct in a complex or messy piece of writing, one thing I try is rewriting it with the adjectives and adverbs removed from it, and taking out some of the short phrases that modify or adjust but don't change the main idea of a sentence. For example, I'd rewrite the example as:

It is not the least among the things bred by the artificialness of sea-usages, that while in the open air of the deck some officers will bear themselves towards their commander; yet, ten to one, let those officers the next moment go down to their dinner in that commander’s cabin, and straightway their ... air towards him, as he sits at the table; this is marvellous.

I took out "upon provocation" and "the head of" and snipped words out of the part in question. It's clear now that "their" is the correct word.

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  • Welcome to EL&U. I agree with your advice.
    – livresque
    Oct 13 '20 at 1:42
  • I get that their was used correctly, I already modified my question in response to the feedback I received. Methinks the sentence lack a verb, don't you agree? Oct 14 '20 at 11:48
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'Their' is a possessive pronoun, i.e., a reference indicating possession of something belonging to either a person or object. In the passage, "their" refers to the officers going down to dinner, specifically, "their offensive... air", i.e., the attitude they possessed towards their (again!) commander. The usage is entirely normal, appropriate and correct.

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  • I get that their was used correctly, I already modified my question in response to the feedback I received. Methinks the sentence lack a verb, don't you agree? Oct 14 '20 at 11:48

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