My usual grammatical spidey-sense has let me down here.

The sentence "I can’t begin to fathom how their tiny bodies would cope with what they had to carry" FEELS complex to me. I feel that

i) "how their tiny bodies would cope" is a subordinate/dependent clause.


ii) it also feels like the object of the main clause "I can't begin to fathom".

So I'm currently labelling it like this: Main clause [I can’t begin to fathom] + subordinate clause [how their tiny bodies would cope] + prepositional phrase [with what they had to carry].

Is this correct as you understand it - I feel there's some grammatical info I've missed here for this confusion to occur!


1 Answer 1


In the words of CGEL (§ 10.1 p. 719), a complex sentence is recognized by the fact that "one or more of its elements is realized as a subordinate clause".
Thus, the object "how their tiny bodies would cope with what they had to carry" being a subordinate, this sentence is complex; that is all there is to it.

"with what they had to carry" is a subordinate clause of the subordinate/ superordinate clause "how their tiny bodies would cope with what they had to carry".

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  • 1
    There are 7 verbs in all, so one main (matrix) clause + 6 subordinate clauses.
    – BillJ
    Jan 19, 2021 at 17:39
  • [I can’t [begin [to fathom [how their tiny bodies would [cope with [what they [had [to carry]]]]]]]]".
    – BillJ
    Jan 19, 2021 at 17:39
  • @BillJ I am not at all familiar with this new grammar; you can see in the diagram that "would discover" is one verb, or rather one verb phrase; in traditional grammar and for the purpose of sentence analysis, you do not take into account verbs but only verb phrases. I can't figure out, anyway, how"to carry" could be a subordinate to "I can't"; that makes no sense to me.
    – LPH
    Jan 19, 2021 at 17:51
  • It's not new. "Would discover" is not a syntactic unit, not a single verb, but two verbs. Each verb heads a verb phrase, and each verb phrase heads a clause. It's the only way that makes sense. Clauses have been analysed like this for years.
    – BillJ
    Jan 19, 2021 at 17:55
  • 2
    @BillJ This is not the point of view in this contemporary grammar: grammar-monster.com/glossary/complex_sentence.htm " We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves." — "can…obtain" is in the matrix clause, give rise to a single clause.
    – LPH
    Jan 19, 2021 at 18:09

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