1

In these books written to edify and instruct American boys, success was the goal to strive for, and success was to be measured by rising above the station one was born into, or, to put it more baldly, by doing better than one's father. If your father was a butcher, you should own the meat market; if he sold shoes, you should manufacture them. The trouble was that this process of outdoing one's forebear, generation after generation, was simply imposible. Only in a society of consistently rising expectations, like that of nineteenth-century America, could it have taken hold as an ideal to be sought, and only in a society determinded to cling to outmoded values could it have continued to exert its power in the following century.

I don' t understand the meaning of this sentence clearly and I don't know why this sentense is begun with "only".

Dose it mean that in these society this kind of way of thinking gradually effects and in a society of consistently rising expectation it show its effect soon?

Correct me if I am wrong.

Thanks in advance.

2

The cited text represents the second of two syntactically identical sentences joined into a single "compound sentence" with the conjunction and...

1: Only in a society of consistently rising expectations, like that of nineteenth-century America, could it have taken hold as an ideal to be sought.
2: Only in a society determined to cling to outmoded values could it have continued to exert its power in the following century.

...to which I'll add a third example, with the same basic syntax, but less words...

3: Only in Britain could this have happened

It should now be easier to see that my simplified example is just a stylistic rearrangement of the normal word order...

4: This could only have happened in Britain.


It's important to note that although it's possible to remove the word only from example #4, this can't be done with the stylistically inverted phrasing of example #3. That's to say,...

5: This could have happened in Britain

...is a syntactically valid sentence (meaning It is possible [that] this happened in Britain), but...

6: ??In Britain could this have happened

...is not idiomatically valid in any context.

It may also help to note that the adverbial element in Britain is in principle "optional" in the shortest valid statement above (example #5)...

7: This could have happened

...in which context I should point out that ?? before example #6 indicates unacceptable to almost all native speakers (it's got nothing to do with asking questions). But with adverbial in Britain either removed completely, or placed at the end of the text, we're left with a perfectly normal question (with the standard "subject/verb inversion" used to form questions in English)...

8: Could this have happened?
9: Could this have happened in Britain?


TL;DR: The word only is syntactically necessary, since the example context is a statement (that the process being discussed couldn't have happened anywhere except in a society like American). If it's omitted, the remaining text could only be understood as a question (because of the subject/verb inversion could it have... rather than it could have...). But semantically, a question would make no sense in this context.


FINALLY - it occurs to me that many people might struggle to understand what it refers to in the cited text ("it" being whatever "took hold as an ideal", and "continued to exert its power"). So just to spell it out,...

it = this process of outdoing one's forebear
(i.e. - that the child should do better in life than the parent.)

  • Lots of thanks. But I thought the society of consistently rising expectation is differet from the society determinded to cling to outmoded values but as I understood from your answer both are discribing one society, the society of America in nineteenth century. and I have another understanding : Dose some people in that century in America rose their expectations and some were clung to outmoded values? – Viser Hashemi Dec 20 '18 at 18:15
  • No - nothing in your example text refers in any way to the possibility that some people in C19 America might have done or thought something different to other people in C19 America. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '18 at 18:34
  • But do you say that these two societies "society of consistently rising expectation" and "society determined to cling in outmoded values" are the same. I mean their thoughts are the same. – Viser Hashemi Dec 20 '18 at 18:59
  • what is the meaning of "it have continued to exert its power"? – Viser Hashemi Dec 20 '18 at 20:53
  • Are you being misled because you assume a society of consistently rising expectation is a good thing, and a society determined to cling in outmoded values is a bad thing? And that any actual, real-world society must be either good or bad, so it can't be both of those things at once? Consider the syntactically identical (but simpler) Only a rich country like the US could develop nanotech, and only a warmongering country could weaponise nanotech. Does my sentence explicitly claim that the US is a warmongering country? Not really, but you might say it's implied. – FumbleFingers Dec 21 '18 at 13:22

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