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Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.

Source: Francis Scott Fitzgerald: The side of Paradise – (it is the very first sentence)

I am not sure if I understand the meaning of the clause, especially the phrase "except the stray inexpressible few". Does the author want to say that the majority of the properties was after his mother but there are a few that was probably inherited from his father? Not sure to which part the subordinate clause "that made him worth while" is connected. To "every trait" or "the stray inexpressible few?

  • What is the source of the quote? – Jasper Aug 15 '18 at 23:27
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The problem with the sentence is that it's phrasing something in a nonessential parenthetical form—but the inclusion of that information in the sentence contradicts the essential information in the rest of the sentence.

In normal constructions of this type, we can remove the optional information between a pair of commas without it affecting the meaning of the main sentence:

  1. Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait that made him worthwhile.

This is perfectly clear. Every trait that made him worthwhile, he inherited from his mother.

The sentence could also be constructed differently:

  1. With the exception of a few inexpressible traits, Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait that made him worthwhile.

Here, it's saying that almost every trait that made him worthwhile he inherited from his mother. However, a few traits that made him worthwhile were not actually inherited from his mother.

Here's where the actual sentence become problematic:

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.

If we simply remove that optional information, we end up with first interpretation. But if we include it, then the sentence actually seems to express the second interpretation (meaning it's not really optional after all).

So, which is it?

We don't actually know. There is a contradiction between the sentence's construction and its meaning. In other words, it's ambiguous.

Is the information provided in the nonessential construction actually nonessential—or is it essential information that should have been presented differently?


Compare this unwise construction with something slightly different:

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, including the stray inexpressible few, that made him worthwhile.

This version is quite understandable. The meaning is that of my first interpretation. He inherited everything from his mother. Some of the things he inherited were also inexpressible. This is how nonessential information should be presented.


Having said all of that, I can't tell you what the sentence means, only that it means one of two possible things. (Further context might resolve the ambiguity.)

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  • tldr— except is ambiguous here, it's not readily clear which it pertains to 1) his mother's traits 2) all traits he's got – Michael Login Aug 15 '18 at 19:23
  • and your 2nd examlple permits that double-meaning reading too, or so it seems to me – Michael Login Aug 15 '18 at 19:31
  • @MvLog No, because my second example only has a single comma. A single comma used in that way means that it is an introductory clause that modifies an independent clause. Unlike text inside paired commas, the information is not nonessential. – Jason Bassford Aug 15 '18 at 19:39
  • Do you mean that With the exception of a few inexpressible traits, Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait that made him worthwhile and Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, with the exception of a few inexpressible ones, that made him worthwhile have different meanings? – Michael Login Aug 15 '18 at 19:52
  • @MvLog That's exactly what I discussed in my answer. The second sentence in your comment (that uses parenthetical nonessential information) may mean the first sentence in your comment—or it may mean the other one I gave in my answer. It's ambiguous. – Jason Bassford Aug 15 '18 at 19:55
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Much as I dislike using punctuation to disambiguate—reordering the clauses is always a better approach, at least when clarity is the goal—the comma there after few indicates that the that-clause modifies every trait not the few.

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.

Reordered:

Except for the stray inexpressible few, Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait that made him worth while.

If it had been punctuated so:

Amory Blaine inherited from his mother every trait except the stray inexpressible few that made him worth while.

it could be reorded so:

Except for the stray inexpressible few that made him worthwhile, Amory Blaine inherited every trait from his mother.

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