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Is this sentence grammatically correct?

  • These two people must be freelancers working hard on their computers.

This sentence is a translation from Russian Эти два человека, должно быть фрилансеры, усердно работающие за компьютерам.

The Russian sentence contains an introductory word (bold part) while in English it is a modal word expressing a moral or legal obligation.

I think it would be correct to write: These two people, who are probably freelancers, are working hard on their computers. Because, as I think, the English sentence with the modal verb "must be" makes no sense.

Though Gpt chat disagrees with me. It says that the English sentence is grammatically correct.

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  • 1
    It's fine, but note that "must be" is not a verb but two verbs: the modal auxiliary "must" + the lexical verb "be".
    – BillJ
    Apr 21 at 7:55
  • If it's a moral or legal obligation, "should be" or "ought to be" is better. "Must" is potentially ambiguous.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 21 at 9:36
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    These two people,who are sure to be freelancers... Apr 21 at 10:40
  • Yes, I also think so, since I am having doubts about my sentence.
    – Серж
    Apr 21 at 13:22
  • 1
    What is the main verb of the original Russian sentence (or, rather, the main noun or adjective, since it probably uses a zero copula)? If I try to come up with a literal translation (which I'm sure I did incorrectly, since I don't know Russian), I end up with something like "These two people, necessarily freelancers, working hard on their computers." My sentence doesn't work in English because the main verb is missing, and out of the several places where you could put a main verb, all of them would result in different meanings. Apr 21 at 19:22

3 Answers 3

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  • These two people must be freelancers working hard on their computers.

is awkward but means

  • It is highly likely that these two people are freelancers. They are working hard on their computers.

The awkwardness arises because the participle clause is purely descriptive, unrelated to the probability of their being freelancers. It is better placed just after the NP it describes ('These two people').

  • These two people working hard on their computers must be freelancers.

..................

  • These two people must be freelancers – working hard on their computers.

allows – but does not demand – the recognition of the participial clause as providing evidence for the claim in the independent clause.

  • These two people must be freelancers, working so hard on their computers.

and

  • These two people must be freelancers, working hard on their computers as they are.

increasingly encourage the 'ing-clause provides a supporting argument' interpretation.

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    Another possibility: "... must be freelancers because they're working so hard...". This is similar in intent to your last example.
    – Barmar
    Apr 21 at 23:00
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    I must disagree with your first claim above (and I've elaborated on that in my answer). IMO by far the most natural way to parse OP's sentence is with the whole noun phrase "freelancers working hard on their computers" acting as the complement to "must be", in which case assigning different epistemic values to its parts makes no sense. The alternative parsing you suggest, with "working hard on their computers" modifying the entire sentence, might be technically grammatical (although, without the modifications you've suggested below, I find even that questionable) but it seems very awkward. Apr 22 at 0:03
  • 1
    '[must be] freelancers working hard on their computers' needs very contrived context if 'working hard on their computers' is identifying rather than purely descriptive. Compare 'These two boys must be brothers playing football'. Apr 22 at 15:20
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Yes, it is correct. The English word must has various meanings. One of them is 'be morally or legally obliged to', but it can also be used to show that something is very likely to be true (as in You must be very tired).

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  • Don't we need commas in this case?
    – Серж
    Apr 21 at 9:28
  • 1
    You could put a comma after freelancers, but it isn't necessary. Apr 21 at 12:27
  • 1
    This translation is what I needed. These two people working hard on their computers must be freelancers.
    – Серж
    Apr 21 at 20:05
  • @Kate, I think the comma does clarify the sentence - it shows that they must be freelancers because they are working hard. I know no Russian, but if that's the meaning of the original, we'd want the comma. Apr 22 at 7:42
  • @TobySpeight, I agree with you.
    – Серж
    Apr 22 at 14:38
2

Your sentence:

"These two people must be freelancers working hard on their computers." (1)

is indeed grammatically correct English. However, I don't think it means exactly what your Russian sentence means (although unfortunately I'm not fluent enough in Russian to be 100% certain), or at least I don't think the grammatical structure of this sentence is quite as close to that of your Russian sentence as you may be assuming.

In particular, in the sentence above, the complement of the verb "be" is the single noun phrase "freelancers [who are] working hard on their computers." In other words, this sentence says that these people must be freelancers and that they must be working hard on their computers.


Meanwhile, as I understand it from your explanation (and from my very limited knowledge of Russian), your Russian sentence seems more closely equivalent to something like the following English sentence:

"These two people, who must be freelancers, are working hard on their computers." (2)

Here, the main sentence "These two people are working hard on their computers." is interrupted by a relative clause stating, tangentially, that these people also must be freelancers.


Admittedly, in this specific case the difference in meaning between these two sentences seems quite hair-thin at best. If any difference exists at all, it's in the fact that sentence (1) above claims that the people must be freelancers and must be working hard on their computers, while sentence (2) claims that they must be freelancers and are working on their computers.

Depending on context, the difference between "must be" and "are" may be essentially nonexistent (both can denote an observed fact that the speaker feels certain about), but in some contexts "must be" can also express other meanings, such as obligation or strong but not absolute belief.

In particular, one way to interpret sentence (2) above (which I suspect is fairly close to the meaning of your Russian sentence) is that the the speaker has directly observed the people working hard on their computers, and inferred that they must be (i.e. very likely are) freelancers. This distinction between direct observation and inference is missing from sentence (1), which combines both "being freelancers" and "working hard" into a single assertion and thus forces the same epistemic modality on both of them.

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  • Yes, although Russian sentence is close to this English equivalent "These two people, who must be freelancers, are working hard on their computers." , it is also,as I think, grammatically not correct. Though there is any ambiguity in Russian sentence because of the commas.
    – Серж
    Apr 22 at 14:36

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