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Concourse 2

Understanding long sentences

long

Here is an example of the problem we want to help you solve:

The present, left-wing, national government, elected last year with a small majority, has recently bravely proposed new and innovative legislation stopping people hiding undeclared money in overseas accounts to avoid tax and it is clear that such legislation will encounter significant opposition from some financial quarters as well as from the banks.

That sentence is 52 words long and it is not unusual to find even longer sentences, especially in technical or scientific texts.  This lesson is designed to help you understand the meaning quickly and ignore what you do not need to know.  This is called unpacking the meaning.  Think of the sentence like a train: it's all joined together but each part carries different meanings.


unpack

Unpacking the meaning

We will use the example above to help you find out what you need to know and unpack that meaning only.
Here's how to do it.


find

Strategy 1:

Find the phrases and Head words

Most positive sentences in English follow a structure you know well:

SUBJECT + VERB (+ OBJECT)

As you know, not all verbs take an object so that part is (in brackets).

write Task 1: Here are two simpler examples for you to practise with before we get to the sentence above.
  1. My old dog still enjoys his long weekend walk in the country.
  2. The young man genuinely believed Mary's mad ideas about life on Mars.
Identify the phrases of both sentences which do different things and write them down.
Then identify the key word in each phrase.
Click here when you have done that.

Identifying the Head of each phrase means that you can now take out all the unnecessary information and get to:

and that will tell you what you really need to know.

write Task 2: That was quite easy.  Now try this sentence.
The crepuscular illumination seriously constrained his ability to discern the
hieroglyphs.
Identify the phrases in this sentence which do different things and write them down.
Then identify the Head words of each phrase.
Click here when you have done that.
write Task 3: Look again at the first problem sentence.
Identify the phrases.
Identify the key nouns and verbs (the Heads) of the phrases.
Write them down.
Here is the sentence again:

The present, left-wing, national government, elected last year with a small majority, has recently bravely proposed new and innovative legislation stopping people hiding undeclared money in overseas accounts to avoid tax and it is clear that such legislation will encounter significant opposition from some financial quarters as well as from the banks.

Click here when you have done that.
strategy

Strategy 2:

Understanding modification

So, now that we have the main meaning of the sentence we can look at what all the other words and phrases are doing.  Often, you don't need to do this because you have already understood the key ideas and can move on.  Sometimes, this is important because we want to understand as much as possible.
To do this, we need to look at what comes before the Head and what follows it separately.

front

in front of the Head

We can take each phrase in turn.  Here's the sentence again:

The present, left-wing, national government, elected last year with a small majority, has recently bravely proposed new and innovative legislation stopping people hiding undeclared money in overseas accounts to avoid tax and it is clear that such legislation will encounter significant opposition from some financial quarters as well as from the banks.

write Task 4: Look at the parts of the phrases in black and decode what they are doing.  When you are sure, click on the eye open to see if we agree.

The present, left-wing, national government
eye open
These look like adjectives but, in fact, they are more important.  They are classifiers because they don't tell you about the noun, they tell you what kind of noun it is.
They are important for that reason.  If you want to know what kind of noun it is, you need to understand these words.
For example:
the noun friend is a simple one and you can have, for example, a loyal friend (that's a simple adjective describing the friend)
but we can also have a school friend and school is a classifier which changes the type of noun we have.
has recently bravely proposed
eye open
Here we have two types of word in front of the verb:
have is an auxiliary verb telling you the tense and is not difficult to understand if you know that the present perfect is used to talk about now.
recently and bravely are adverbs telling you about the verb.  It is often not necessary to know what adverbs mean.  The meaning of recently is contained in the verb tense, in fact, and the adverb bravely just tells you what the writer thinks, not what the government thinks.
new and innovative legislation
eye open
Here, we have two adjectives joined by and.
It is not important to understand them both because innovative includes the idea of new.
Both these words are adjectives not classifiers so they are not so important.
it is clear that such legislation
eye open
Here, the phrase ... it is clear that ... only tells you about the writer's attitude.  You can safely ignore it if the writer's opinion is not important to you.
You can also ignore other attitude markers such as obviously, patently, blatantly, demonstrably etc. when you see them.
will encounter
eye open
No problem here.  We are talking about a future that the writer believes will happen.
significant opposition
eye open
If you understand the word opposition, you do not need to understand the adjective significant.  It adds very little.
financial quarters eye open
Another classifier.  As usual, it is important to understand this word because the noun, quarters, just means parts of society so we need the classifier to tell us what the writer is saying.

guides

The four guides:

  1. Make sure you understand the Heads of each phrase
  2. Make sure you understand any classifiers
  3. Ignore markers of the writer's opinion
  4. Ignore adverbs and adjectives you don't know
after

after the Head

write Task 5: We will follow the same system.
Look at the parts of the phrases in black and decode what they are doing.  When you are sure, click on the eye open to see if we agree.

government, elected last year with a small majority,
eye open
This a relative clause but the pronoun which is not included.  Notice that it comes between commas.  Any relative clause between commas is just extra information.  You can safely ignore it.
For example:
the house which is painted blue is his
This is a relative clause with no commas so it is important in some way that you identify the right house.
the house, which is painted blue, is his
This is a relative clause inside commas so you can ignore the extra information.
legislation stopping people hiding undeclared money in overseas accounts to avoid tax
eye open
The verb stopping can be replaced with which will stop so this is information you do need.  There are no commas to show that it is just extra information.
Without understanding post-modifiers like this, you cannot get the full meaning.
opposition from some financial quarters as well as from the banks
eye open
Here, we have two prepositional phrases.
Prepositional phrases are usually not too important because they add extra information.  You decide if you need the information to get the meaning you want.
For example, we can have:
The man with white hair is his father
You only need to understand with white hair if it is not clear in any other way.  Usually, it is.

guides

The four guides:

  1. Make sure you understand the Heads of each phrase
  2. Make sure you understand any relative clauses which are not between commas
  3. Ignore any relative clauses which are between commas
  4. Look carefully at prepositional phrases to see if they contain any information you need that is not stated in another part of the text

split

Split phrases

Be careful to understand split modifying phrases.  Here's an example:

  1. She went to see John in the morning
  2. In the morning, she went to see John

In both these sentences, the verb is went.  In both cases, we know that the action happened in the morning.  The verb is modified by the prepositional phrase in the morning.
This information is given at the end or at the beginning but it is separated from the verb:

  1. in the morning comes at the end (separated from went by to see John).
  2. In the morning comes at the beginning and is separated from went by she.

The phrase in the morning clearly refers to the verb, not to John.  It tells us when she went.

That is simple enough but it sometimes gets complicated.  For example:

  1. We will have to check soon what the problem is by looking at the data in May.

Here, one of the modifiers for check is sent to the end of the sentence:

  1. soon: the adverb modifier follows the verb directly so is a simple post-modifying expression.
  2. in May is separated from the verb by soon what the problem is.  The prepositional phrase, in May, refers to the verb, check, not the data.  It tells us when we do the checking not when the data will be there.

The verbs phrase is check ... in May.

Sometimes it is not clear what is modifying what.  For example, the sentence:

He explained the problem for the audience

Can mean:

  1. The audience had a problem (That means, He explained the problem that the audience had.)
  2. The problem was explained to the audience (That means, He explained the problem to the audience.)

Only the context will help you here.

2

The two guides:

  1. Look out for split modifying phrases
  2. Make sure you understand what a prepositional phrase is really modifying – is it the noun or the verb?

Now it's time to take a test of all this.  Click here when you are ready.