that preceded it

diegodbs

Senior Member
Spain-Spanish
Editorial published in The New York Times. January 24, 2006

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/24/opinion/24tue4.html
Army troglodytes in Spain:

Spain's swift and smooth passage to modern democracy after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 makes it easy to forget the horrors of the civil war and the brutal dictatorship that preceded it.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
Franco´s dictatorship (1939-1975)

I am a little bit confused about the use of "preceded it" in that context. If "to preceed" is "to go or happen before something", I might think that the NYT Editorial says that the brutal dictatorship preceded the Spanish Civil War. And things didn't happen that way.

Does "it" refer to the civil war, as I seem to understand (in which case there would be an error concerning dates)? or am I wrong and "it" refers to "modern democracy" two lines before that "it" (in which case I find it difficult to "connect" democracy and the pronoun "it")

Will you please make it clear for me?
Thanks.
 
  • judkinsc

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    It means that civil war and dictatorship came before "modern democracy".

    "It", at the end, refers to "modern democracy".
     

    diegodbs

    Senior Member
    Spain-Spanish
    judkinsc said:
    It means that civil war and dictatorship came before "modern democracy".

    "It", at the end, refers to "modern democracy".

    I know "it" should refer to modern democracy because I know how things happened in my country, but what I can't understand is why "it" refers to "modern democracy" and not to "dictatorship" which is the nearest word.
    That's what I'd like to understand from a grammatical point of view.
    Thanks.
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    A statement is made about democracy and something that preceded it. That something is "the civil war and Franco's dictatorship."

    The way it's written, the two things that came before democracy are mentioned in chronological order. But it is confusing-- it does sound like the writer is saying the two things in the list preceded one another. And that would put them in the wrong order, obviously.

    I suppose it's possible for a reader to be confused if it were written the other way around. Spain, democracy, easy to forget the horrors of the brutal dictatorship and the civil war that preceded it. See, "dictatorship" is mentioned first, then "civil war," making the word "preceded" sound odd, since we tend to interpret listed items as being chronological.

    Democracy in Spain was preceded by a civil war and the Crusades-- and the Jurassic Era.

    Democracy in Spain was preceded by the Jurassic Era, the Crusades, and a brutal civil war.

    The lesson for me is, human logic interprets one thing as preceding another, and a sentence that says a couple or three things preceded something, democracy for example-- confuses the issue by not specifying the order of precedence of the preceding things mentioned. It isn't enough to just list them, because one reader will look at them as they relate to "democracy," and another will see them in the order they appear on the page.

    If you're confused by my analysis, don't feel so alone-- I am too.
    .
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    Hi Diego,

    It's badly written. The 'it' is hanging off the back of the truck, so it's hard to associate with something earlier in the sentence.
    Because I know the history, my mind 'fixed' the grammar, and the sentence was clear to me. But for a reader with no prior knowledge of Spanish history, the whole thing might be confusing.

    un saludo,
    Cuchu
     

    judkinsc

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    Because "it" doesn't necessarily refer to the nearest word. In this case, it refers to the indirect object "modern democracy."

    "the horrors of the civil war and the brutal dictatorship" takes the pronoun "that", then the verb "preceded", then there's the object "it". The subject "horrors..." can't be the same as the object, so the object is something farther back in the sentence.

    EDIT: Actually, I suppose "it" really refers to "passage", but since the full usage is "passage to modern democracy", one can use "modern democracy" instead, even if it doesn't technically relate to it...
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    I just read the editorial, and wonder if anyone can explain the mysterious apostrophe to me...

    Yet that is just what has happened twice this month in Spain, a country whose 20th-century history compels it to take such threats seriously, even when the chances of insubordinate words' leading to insubordinate actions seems quite unlikely.

    Could the proofreaders have been asleep?
     

    judkinsc

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    cuchuflete said:
    I just read the editorial, and wonder if anyone can explain the mysterious apostrophe to me...


    Could the proofreaders have been asleep?

    They forgot the comma after the "yet" too, and "chances" should really be singular.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Yet that is just what has happened twice this month in Spain, a country whose 20th-century history compels it to take such threats seriously, even when the chances of insubordinate words' leading to insubordinate actions seems quite unlikely.
    That's either a correct, or incorrect, attempt to make something look as if it's a subjunctive, or something else.

    Consider, perhaps, an alternative
    "... even when the chances of the Duke of Wellington's leading the troops to defeat seems quite unlikely."

    CAUTION
    I'm not entirely sure I know what I am talking about up there, so please feel free to correct at will. If you are cruel, I will delete this post.

    PS
    I had no bother with the quote that is actually the topic for this thread. The subject of the sentence being the thing referred to by the it was clear enough to me. If there'd been a comma after the war, though...
     

    elroy

    Imperfect mod
    US English, Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    diegodbs said:
    I know "it" should refer to modern democracy because I know how things happened in my country, but what I can't understand is why "it" refers to "modern democracy" and not to "dictatorship" which is the nearest word.
    That's what I'd like to understand from a grammatical point of view.
    Thanks.

    "It" cannot refer to "dictatorship" because a dictatorship cannot precede itself. This is assuming "that preceded it" refers either to "dictatorship" or "horrors (of the civil war and the dictatorship)." However, if "dictatorship" is not an object of the preposition "of" but another direct object, then "it" could refer to "dictatorship" if the dictatorship preceded the civil war (which it didn't, did it?).

    cuchuflete said:
    I just read the editorial, and wonder if anyone can explain the mysterious apostrophe to me...


    Quote:
    Yet that is just what has happened twice this month in Spain, a country whose 20th-century history compels it to take such threats seriously, even when the chances of insubordinate words' leading to insubordinate actions seems quite unlikely.

    Could the proofreaders have been asleep?

    Remember this?
     

    DaleC

    Senior Member
    I wonder whether a certain semantically clearer paraphrase would have obviated the confusion. I am about to present and explain this paraphrase.
    diegodbs said:
    I know "it" should refer to modern democracy because I know how things happened in my country, but what I can't understand is why "it" refers to "modern democracy" and not to "dictatorship" which is the nearest word.
    That's what I'd like to understand from a grammatical point of view.
    Thanks.

    For practical purposes, we ought to consider "it" to refer to "passage". However, philosophically speaking, in this particular case "passage to democracy" seems to constitute sophisticated continuum of thought, so that one could argue that -- again philosophically, not syntactically -- "democracy" assimilates "passage". But I digress. ;)

    The sentence in the New York Times has a confusing peculiarity which is typical and characteristic of written English idiom (recall that in English "typical" and "characteristic" mean different things). Namely, the identity of the key idea, what it is that "makes it easy to forget ~", has been obscured by a syntactic transformation. The key idea is not the mere event of a passage which was incidentally swift and smooth, but rather the swiftness and smoothness themselves. To paraphrase:

    Spain's [passage to modern democracy] was so swift and smooth that it is easy to forget [what] preceded it.

    Educated prose style in English transforms this to "Spain's swift and smooth passage" out of a general obsession with syntactic compression and a particular afán, craving, to create adjectival phrases, even when the result does not have the normal semantic functions of adjectival phrases (attribute or epithet).
     

    diegodbs

    Senior Member
    Spain-Spanish
    DaleC said:
    I wonder whether a certain semantically clearer paraphrase would have obviated the confusion. I am about to present and explain this paraphrase.


    For practical purposes, we ought to consider "it" to refer to "passage". However, philosophically speaking, in this particular case "passage to democracy" seems to constitute sophisticated continuum of thought, so that one could argue that -- again philosophically, not syntactically -- "democracy" assimilates "passage". But I digress. ;)

    The sentence in the New York Times has a confusing peculiarity which is typical and characteristic of written English idiom (recall that in English "typical" and "characteristic" mean different things). Namely, the identity of the key idea, what it is that "makes it easy to forget ~", has been obscured by a syntactic transformation. The key idea is not the mere event of a passage which was incidentally swift and smooth, but rather the swiftness and smoothness themselves. To paraphrase:

    Spain's [passage to modern democracy] was so swift and smooth that it is easy to forget [what] preceded it.

    Educated prose style in English transforms this to "Spain's swift and smooth passage" out of a general obsession with syntactic compression and a particular afán, craving, to create adjectival phrases, even when the result does not have the normal semantic functions of adjectival phrases (attribute or epithet).

    Thank you Dalec, I see you agree with me on that kind of "confusing peculiarity" of the sentence as written in what I quoted above. Perhaps that syntax was what confused me first. Your paraphase:

    Spain's [passage to modern democracy] was so swift and smooth that it is easy to forget [what] preceded it.

    sounds more "natural" to me, as it is closer to Spanish syntax. But, as we all know, every language has its peculiarities.
    Thanks again.
     
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