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I found this sentence in a New York Times article:

They rented not so much a home as a fraction of one.

It seemed confusing to me that I spent minutes trying to understand it. And here are my versions which I think are better:

They didn’t rent a home so much as a fraction of one.

They rented not a home but rather a fraction of one.

Is the original meaning too confusing? And are my revisions ok?

  • home has a very broad meaning; in general it can refer to any place you live regularly. Or figuratively (home sweet home). So what they were promised as a "home" (physically) was far less than what they got. – user3169 May 13 '18 at 5:02
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Native speakers wouldn't find the original sequence from NYT at all "confusing".

It's perfectly familiar (if somewhat stylised) phrasing, where the noun phrase construction not so much X as Y carries the highly specific implication expected = X, reality = Y.

OP's first attempt at "improvement" (They didn’t rent a home so much as a fraction of one) doesn't work so well as the original because it erroneously links negating n't = not closer to the verb (rent) rather than its true referent (a home). That "misplaced" negation weakens the amusing/unexpected contrast intended by the writer, because it puts the "focus" in the wrong place.

To my mind, the second rephrasing (They rented not a home but rather a fraction of one) also falls short of the mark because it lacks any strong allusion to that "expectation vs reality" clash. You can tell this by considering something like I drive not a diesel but rather a petrol car. Admittedly, that's rather affected phrasing, but the point is this construction can be used without implying that the speaker might have been expected to drive a diesel (feasibly the speaker only mentioned diesels at at simply because they'd been referred to earlier in the conversation).


TL;DR: There's nothing syntactically "wrong" with either of OP's alternatives, but for a competent native speaker they're not so effective as the original. And it may be worth pointing out that NYT's target readership is competent native speakers, not people who are learning English in later life.

  • Before it seems abstract to me. Now I start to realize the sense of the meaning. “Not so much a home as a fraction of one”, so a fraction is much more. Got it. – user67265 May 13 '18 at 21:44
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At the most basic level, we can think of a house as a structure containing a bunch of rooms. Metaphorically speaking, a fraction of a house would be just one or two rooms. Then, what the passage is saying is that what they were renting was not so much of a house (the entire house), but a fraction of it. Probably just a room. So, they were most likely renting a single room.

  • If you look at the linked article, it refers to people who rent a bedroom + shared use of a bathroom and kitchen. – James K May 13 '18 at 5:18
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I don't find the sentence confusing. I understand it to be equivalent to the two sentences

They didn't rent a home. They rented a fraction of a home.

The context (a woman who rented a room + shared bathroom and shared kitchen) fits with this interpretation. Your two glosses are also correct.

Cambridge have a dictionary definition of not so much sth as sth

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