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"It's not like that!" said Harry, and he was so relieved at finally understanding what she was annoyed about that he laughed, which he realized a split second too late was also a mistake.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

It seems to me that "a split second too late" is the subject of the clause. But "a split second too late" doesn't look like a noun phrase, and hence it's not a legitimate subject in my opinion. Or we should parse it as "he realized [a split second] that too late was also a mistake"? How should we understand that phrase here?

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    Probably clearer if you read it as "he laughed, which he realized - a split second too late - was also a mistake". – Daniel Roseman Mar 20 at 13:47
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No, the subject of was also a mistake is the act of laughing, he laughed. Laughing at that moment was a mistake. But he was aware of that just a split second after laughing, too late because he couldn't avoid it.

a split second too late is a complement that determines when exactly he was aware of his mistake, when he realized that.

  • I got it now. But "a split second too late" doesn't sound a correct phrase to me. "A split second late" sounds correct. – dan Mar 20 at 15:30
  • @dan Do you know the expression "It's too late". The adverb too is used to emphasize the grade of "lateness", it's not just late, it's too late. Check the meaning of late: more than is needed or wanted; more than is suitable or enough. Maybe if you read the examples in the Cambridge Dictionary ... dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/too – RubioRic Mar 20 at 15:46
  • @dan The meaning of "too". I got a typo above – RubioRic Mar 20 at 15:53
  • I know the phrase "too late". But I have a hard time to understand the grammar of "a split second too late". – dan Mar 20 at 22:52
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    @dan think of it as "he realized too late, by a split second, that laughing was a mistake." In other words, his realization came too late to do anything to prevent his mistake, but only by the very tiniest of margins (he almost realized his mistake on time but did not.) The entire phrase is acting as an adverb describing when the action occurred. – KutuluMike Mar 21 at 1:24
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But "a split second too late" doesn't look like a noun phrase

No, it's acting as an adverb. The basic sentence is "Harry realized that laughing was a mistake." "laughing was a mistake" is a dependent clause with "laughing" as the subject "was" as the verb, and "mistake" as the subject complement. "that laughing was a mistake" is the object of the verb "realized". "a split second too late" acts as an adverb modifying "realized", saying when Harry realized it. It could also be written as "which he realized was also a mistake a split second too late."

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