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If we take light for example, is it a wave or a particle? What is the 'true' nature of light? Is it a mixture of waves and particles or is it the way in which we try to make sense of light, by categorizing its essential features according to properties that fit a wave model or a particle model, that is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form?

I would like to know what these two "it"s point to. At first, I thought that the first "it" points to " 'true' nature of light" mentioned previously, while the next "it" points to "that is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form".

But considering the conjunction 'or', it seemed like the two 'it's had to mean the same thing. Then I was faced with another problem; if I take both as "that is ~~ form", the first part doesn't seem to make sense, since it is not the mixture of waves and particles itself that blocks us from understanding its real form. My interpretation was that the both meant "true nature of light", and understood this sentence as:

Is the true nature of light a mixture of waves and particles, or is the true nature of light how we try to make sense of light (which actually is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or "true" form)?

But this doesn't seem smooth either. How should I understand this sentence? Thank you in advance!

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  • "it" = "the thing that is getting in the way of our understanding of the true nature of light."
    – Andrew
    Jun 29, 2017 at 22:57
  • Nah, it is a poorly constructed sentence with ambiguities galore.
    – Robusto
    Jun 30, 2017 at 0:06
  • This is typical spoken language. "it" refers to light.
    – Lambie
    Mar 12, 2023 at 16:48

2 Answers 2

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Rephrased, this unnecessarily complicated and poorly constructed sentence asks two questions:

  • Is it a mixture of waves and particles that is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form?

  • Is it the way in which we try to make sense of light, by categorizing its essential features according to properties that fit a wave model or a particle model, that is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form?

Both questions use the it-cleft structure.

The first it refers to the noun phrase a mixture of waves and particles. The second it refers to the noun phrase the way in which we try to make sense of light, by categorizing its essential features according to properties that fit a wave model or a particle model.

In this sentence, each of the cited instances of it serves as the complement of the copula in an interrogative clause with an it-cleft structure:

First interrogative clause:

IsCOPULA itCOMPLEMENT [a mixture of waves and particles]NP SUBJECT

orCONJUNCTION

Second interrogative clause:

isCOPULA itCOMPLEMENT [the way in which we try to make sense of light, by categorizing its essential

features according to properties that fit a wave model or a particle model]NP SUBJECT,

Relative clause:

thatREL. PRN. isCOPULA [getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form]VP COMPLEMENT?

The relative pronoun that which introduces the relative clause has both/either of the its as its precedent.

We can more easily analyze the sentence if we reduce its scale:

Is it the moon or is it the sun that is shining brightly?

This is parsed as:

IsCOPULA itCOMPLEMENT [the moon]NP SUBJECT

orCONJUNCTION

IsCOPULA itCOMPLEMENT [the sun]NP SUBJECT

thatREL. PRN. isCOPULAshining brightlyVP COMPLEMENT?

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  • Fingers crossed... I was flapping my lower lip at the finish line, and everything was starting to sound like Finnish. Jun 30, 2017 at 1:13
  • Considering the context, doesn't it sound strange that "a mixture of waves and particles" can hinder us from understanding its true form? Would it alter the meaning of the original sentence if I paraphrased the sentence this way? "Is it a mixture of waves and particles? Or, is it the way in which we try to make sense of light, ...[omit]..., that is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form?" Jun 30, 2017 at 6:59
  • No, it would not change the meaning. Of course, the first part of your paraphrase is not a sentence, so it is informal, but the original is journalese, so formality is not required! Jul 4, 2017 at 18:11
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The sentence is poorly written. Not even the original is smooth. It makes grammatical sense, but it's what linguists call a "garden-path sentence". As you're reading it, your first understanding of "it" seems correct, but later you find out that "it" stands for "whatever is getting in the way of understanding of light's real or 'true' form". Yes, the sentence confuses native speakers, too.

#Some smaller sentences with the same kind of "it"

A way to understand the sentence is to compare it to some simpler sentences with the same kind of grammatical structure, like these:

Gus: "Is it the bird's song that you like?"
Kelly: "No, it's the color."

Jim: "Is it the high gasoline prices that are keeping you from driving your car?"
Mary: "No, it's the 12-foot snow drift in front of my driveway."

In these sentences, the referent of it doesn't appear fully explicitly. It refers to "what you like about the bird" and "whatever is keeping you from driving your car."

#More problems

Another problem with the original sentence is that it needs a comma after "particles". A comma would help suggest that the second "it" doesn't have the same referent as the first. A comma probably wouldn't remove the confusion completely, but it would help.

As you noticed, the word "or" suggests that the clause with the first "it" and the clause with the second "it" are comparable alternatives. But in this sentence, they're not. This abuse of the word "or" is a much more severe problem than the missing comma.

I found the original paragraph here, and it's a disaster. Here it is:

Science is viewed by many as definitive, basing its conclusions on facts, and capable of delivering answers to questions and problems. However, scientists do not start from the premise of science being about universal 'truths' or definitive answers. Any person working in the field of science understands that the idea of truth in science is also relative. The mistake happens when people consider the pursuit of science to be the pursuit of truth. Science can often result in [a confused understanding of the world]. If we take light for example, is it a wave or a particle? What is the 'true' nature of light? Is it a mixture of waves and particles or is it the way in which we try to make sense of light, by categorizing its essential features according to properties that fit a wave model or a particle model, that is getting in the way of our understanding of its real or 'true' form?

First of all, in the two dialogues above, we would normally expect that previous conversation already made it known that Kelly likes the bird and that Mary isn't driving her car. It would be strange—illogical, even—for Gus or Jim to say those sentences if the assumed fact hadn't already been established.

The preceding sentences of the paragraph, however, don't establish that anything is getting in the way of our understanding of light's real or true form.

Customarily, a comma should precede "for example", but this mistake is small and unimportant.

#Problems elsewhere in the paragraph

A common observation is that poor writing is often the expression of poor thinking. (That only applies to poor writing by fluent speakers, of course!) The whole paragraph is "pretentious language". It's not a good model to learn English from (except as a model of things to avoid). Below are some more problems. I'll only point them out briefly rather than explaining them in depth:

  • "Scientists do not start from the premise of science being about universal 'truths' or definitive answers": This is an abuse of the word "premise". Scientific research doesn't "start from a premise" about what science is about. In this context, the quotation marks around "truths" are called "[scare quotes]"—basically a way of sneering at the idea of truth. The word "universal" is used here somewhat meaninglessly, but in a way that superficially sounds learnèd and rigorous.

  • "Any person working in the field of science understands that the idea of truth in science is also relative": The word "also" means in addition to something previously mentioned: something else that was also "relative", or some other attribute of the idea of truth in science—but no such thing or attribute was mentioned. The word "relative" here is used somewhat meaninglessly: relative to what? The context doesn't say. In the 1990s, this way of using the word "relative" was very popular as a pretentious way to "pooh-pooh" respected ideas without really explaining what's wrong with them. In reality, most people working in science are doing their best to find truthful, definitive answers to the questions they ask.

  • "The mistake": No mistake has previously been mentioned, so "the" doesn't make sense here. You could say "the" mistake without an antecedent, but then there would need to be a clear connection with something covered elsewhere in the context.

  • "mixture of waves and particles": Quantum mechanics has long been a favorite source of sophomoric arguments to discredit scientific objectivity. But speaking of a "mixture" of waves and particles misconstrues the topic.

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    Thanks for your detailed answer! This paragraph was actually taken from Korean SAT problem, infamous for its unrealistic complexity and redundancy. No wonder I had a hard time struggling through it. :) Jun 30, 2017 at 6:49
  • The test excerpt is copied verbatim from How Science Works Printed in 2011 and written by James D. Williams who is also the author of “The teacher's Grammar Book” (2005)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 12, 2023 at 18:10

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