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She was meant to stay indoors but everything looked varnished and bright after the rain, so she put her coat on and went outside, then came back in and slung the camera over her shoulder. Through the sopping grass and down towards the river. It was wide and brown today, and it rippled and churned. There were deep creases when it went round rocks and a hollow, clunking noise. It looked strong, like a muscle. When she threw in a stick, the stick didn't float on the surface – it got dragged under, as if something had reached up to grab it. She walked along the bank and there was the bridge she'd seen in some of the photos – it had rusty railings and a broken plank in the middle.

Source: Weathering by Lucy Wood, p. 83

I don't understand the meaning of this sentence : there were deep creases when it went round rocks and a hollow, clunking noise.

First, does this 'it went round rocks' mean river flows around a patch of rocks? Second, isn't 'a hollow, clunking noise' grammatically wrong?

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    What makes you think a hollow, clunking noise is grammatically incorrect? – Cantalouping May 29 '17 at 5:55
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    "hollow, clunking noise" is OK, but what "it" is has not been established, so it is hard to understand what is being described. This is because the first phrase "Through the sopping grass and down towards the river" is not a complete sentence and has no subject. – user3169 May 29 '17 at 6:02
  • Mind providing a sentence (or two) that appear before the passage you provided? – CinCout May 29 '17 at 6:40
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    Please look at @BenKovitz's answer. He/she tells you "Each it that you marked in bold refers to the river. " You are quoting here the same sentence and you still say "what "it" is has not been established" . "Through the sopping grass and down towards the river" is not incomplete, it is just that the subject (she) is not repeated and the verb (went) is only implied to suggest quick rapid movements, to stress the chain of actions, like, as @BenKovitz says, "establishing shots" in a movie. – Laure May 29 '17 at 6:45
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    @Laure The other question is about the same passage, but it's a different question. I suggested posting a separate question about this here. – Ben Kovitz May 29 '17 at 9:26
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Native speakers also find that sentence clumsy, confusing, or even ungrammatical. Perhaps the author made it that way deliberately, for artistic reasons, or perhaps it was just some sloppy writing that the copyeditor didn't fix.

Here's my attempt to rewrite it to make it clearer:

There were deep creases in the river's surface where it went round rocks, and there was a hollow, clunking noise.

Yes, the original sentence means that the river flowed around a patch of rocks.

The author wrote when to introduce the place where the deep creases were. Normally we would say where. It's not unusual in English to swap words for time with words for space, but in this sentence it's jarring.

When I first read the sentence, I thought it was ungrammatical because I couldn't find a verb that said anything about a hollow, clunking noise. At first, "a hollow, clunking noise" appears to be a second object of "went round", but that doesn't make sense: a river can't "go round" a noise.* Later, I noticed that the sentence as a whole is structured like this one:

There were three Queens and a Jack.

"Three Queens" corresponds to "deep creases when it went round rocks." "A Jack" corresponds to "a hollow, clunking noise". When the sentence is this short, it's easy to see that "three Queens" and "a Jack" are both subjects of the verb "were". In the original sentence, a reader tends to see "deep creases" as the whole subject of "were": "deep creases" has sort of "used up" the verb "were" in the reader's mind. People don't think about this consciously when reading, of course, but the result is that the reader is likely to feel lost upon reaching "hollow, clunking noise". The feeling of disorientation happens because that phrase doesn't seem connected to a verb.

That isn't wrong, it's just unnecessarily confusing. In my rewrite, I added there was to make the sentence easier to follow. In the original, the plural "were" led the reader not to connect it with "a hollow, clunking noise" so many words later, after a plural subject ("creases"). The singular "was" agrees with the singular "hollow, clunking noise", so the reader never gets lost. (This shows how there is more to English grammar than precise rules, and there are no exact boundaries between grammar, style, and clarity.)


*By the way, people seldom use "round" as a preposition in the United States, so Americans might be more likely to judge the sentence ungrammatical. I just figure that the author is likely to be British.

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Formally, there is nothing wrong with it:

"There were

  1. deep creases when it went round rocks, and
  2. a hollow, clunking noise. "

The sentence

There were sparks, flashes of light, and the smell of sulfur.

which is perfectly grammatical and perfectly comprehensible, has the same structure, but since the list is longer and the items in the list more similar, it feels more like a list.

Technically, it's "good English"; whether it's "good writing" is a different question.

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    The problematic part is that the sentence is structured as “There were A when B and C”, which is simply unnatural. Yes, one can interpret it as “There were (A when B) and C”, but perhaps what was intended was “There were (A and C) when B” = “When B, there were A and C”. Another interpretation of such a sentence would be “There were A when (B and C)”, which doesn't fit here. – ShreevatsaR May 30 '17 at 2:57
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    @ShreevatsaR -- I don't think it's cricket to say that there is an alternative parsing that ungrammatical. There is always an ungrammatical parsing. – Malvolio May 30 '17 at 6:50
  • I wasn't clear, but my point wasn't merely that an ungrammatical reading exists, but that it is quite natural and possibly even the most likely one: thus it trips up readers. (Like garden path sentences, but without the redeeming feature that the incorrect reading is ruled out by grammar.) Consider a sentence like “There were deep creases when it went round rocks and boulders” — here the “a hollow, clunking noise” has been replaced by “boulders”, the reading is different, and this sort of grammatical structure is more natural IMO. – ShreevatsaR May 30 '17 at 16:00
  • @ShreevatsaR -- yes, it is very close to a garden-path sentence, and therefore should be avoided by careful writers, but that wasn't the question. – Malvolio May 31 '17 at 20:43
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Ben Kovitz' answer to your previous question applies equally well here. If the writer says a river (the implied subject) has "deep creases" and a "hollow, clunking noise", it's figurative language common in creative writing.

I expect you understand what the author means to say, even if the words seem unusual when describing the movement of water. Yes, the author could say that the river was making a hollow, clunking noise, but for whatever reason she chose a different expression. The use of the possessive "has" describes more like what the river is than what it does, which gives a sense of immediacy and permanence.

As you continue to read English creative writing you will find many occasions where the author uses awkward, unusual, or simply incorrect grammar for artistic effect. Consider this similar excerpt from "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy:

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke.

McCarthy likes to use a lot of short, simple sentences that nevertheless run together, in long, stream-of-consciousness paragraphs. To me, this makes me feel more like things are happening in the moment, which also gives a sense of urgency to the character's actions. You are never sure what will happen next, because the action isn't neatly broken into chapters and paragraphs, the way it is with other writing.

This style can be difficult to read and so some think it simply "bad writing". It's easier to accept if you think of it more like poetry and just let the flowing words create the image for you, rather than thinking about it too deeply.

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