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The following is from The African Queen by C. S. Forester

Her very father and mother, hard devout Christians that they were, who had never spared the rod in the upbringing of the children deferred to him then, and heard his words with respect.

Does the bold phrase mean 'even though they were hard devout Christians themselves' or ' because they were hard devout Christians themselves'?

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    -1 no research indicated. Since you seem to know that the phrase can mean either one, give us details, don't just ask which one is correct. Second, your English is good enough to actually attempt to research the answer yourself. – AmE speaker Nov 24 '17 at 5:02
  • Do you think I would ask questions without doing some research? I've done the research but still couldn't be sure of it because both ways seem to work in the context. I only ask a question when I've exhausted all the resources and options to get the answer. This site is my last resort. I've got lots of help from this site and really appreciate it. But please don't assume I don't research enough. You have no idea how much I study. – whitecap Nov 24 '17 at 6:49
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    You did research? Great. Then indicate/show what it was. Again, see details please, especially "3) Show your research. Wondering if something is common? Tell us what you found when you did a Google search. Confused about a word? Paste the dictionary definition, so everyone knows you've already looked the word up. Some people might wonder, "Isn't it obvious, what the word means?" My answer is, "Apparently not – otherwise, you wouldn't be asking this question." – AmE speaker Nov 24 '17 at 6:54
  • " Including a definition serves a couple different purposes: (a) it shows you've put forth a good-faith effort to answer your own question, and (b) it saves time for people answering your question, because they don't have to spend time writing things that you already know while they are composing their answers." – AmE speaker Nov 24 '17 at 6:54
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    This is a good question and I don't see how consulting a dictionary would have helped. What word could have been looked up to answer the question about syntax? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 24 '17 at 11:53
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The short answer is: it means "because they were hard devout Christians".

This kind of appositive construction gives an explanation for the actions or behaviour of the phrase or noun in apposition, for example:

Jonathan, the hard worker he is, kicked it up a notch and offered to fix the truck for a much cheaper rate than a mechanic

Which could be rewritten as:

Jonathan, being the hard worker he is, kicked it up a notch and offered to fix the truck for a much cheaper rate than a mechanic

or even:

Because Jonathan is such a hard worker, he kicked it up a notch and offered to fix the truck for a much cheaper rate than a mechanic

It would seem that your example is missing a comma. Consider rewriting it as:

Her very father and mother, hard devout Christians that they were, who had never spared the rod in the upbringing of the children, deferred to him then, and heard his words with respect.

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The construction used here

[descriptor] that they were

is usually used in a parenthetical way such as this. It is typically meant as an explanation of the previous or next clause. So yes, in this case it should be interpreted as

because they were hard devout Christians themselves.

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Compare:

Miss Crabapple, harpy that she was, descended upon the children's birthday party and absconded with the piñata.

It is a little more emphatic than "because". The clause in question presents a fact that goes to the essence of the noun-phrase so described.

  • I can see the 'emphatic' feel of it now. Yes, indeed it's more than just 'because.' Got it. Thank you. – whitecap Nov 24 '17 at 18:35

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