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I read this sentence from The Great Gatsby:

“Plenty of gas,” said Tom boisterously. He looked at the gauge. “And if it runs out I can stop at a drug-store. You can buy anything at a drug-store nowadays.”

A pause followed this apparently pointless remark. Daisy looked at Tom frowning, and an indefinable expression, at once definitely unfamiliar and vaguely recognizable, as if I had only heard it described in words, passed over Gatsby’s face.

Which one of the following interpretations is correct?

  1. Daisy looked at Tom. At the same time, she was frowning.
  2. Daisy looked at Tom, and Tom was frowning.

If 1. is correct, what do I say to mean 2?

  • Who knows why Fitzgerald didn't just use the verb, "Daisy frowned at Tom". But then "an indefinable expression, at once definitely unfamiliar and vaguely recognizable" is about as clumsy a sentence as I've seen written. Sometimes you just have to read to get the sense of what the author means, and not get too picky about details. – Andrew May 15 at 18:01
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    @Andrew but Daisy wasn’t frowning at Tom. She was frowning while she looked at him. It’s a different emotion implied. – ColleenV May 15 at 18:10
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    @Andrew I didn’t read that as Daisy being upset, which I might have if it said “at”. She’s trying to figure out why he made this seemingly pointless remark and what the significance is. But I tend to read novels like this quite closely instead of just reading enough to understand the general story like I do with the pulp sci-fi I enjoy. – ColleenV May 15 at 18:30
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    I'd have said Daisy was quizzical -- why had Tom said that? -- and so was frowning. The significance of the drug stores is elaborated later. – jonathanjo May 15 at 18:43
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    Isn't it interesting that a celebrated writer in a novel considered a masterpiece could have such a clumsy construction? Did he mean for it to be ambiguous? Was his editor asleep? Is it possible that Tom frowned when he realized his comment was 'pointless'? Who made the judgment that it was 'apparently pointless'? If it was Tom, then maybe he did frown. Is observation pointless? – user8356 May 15 at 19:06
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From the sentence alone, it could mean either #1 or #2; there is no way to tell without context. #1 would be the more common meaning of this construction, but #2 is perfectly proper.

In this case, the previous paragraph makes it clear that Tom was happy (the term "boisterously" is used), and that Daisy and Gatsby were not. Therefore, #1 was intended.

Strictly speaking, this should have a comma:

Daisy looked at Tom, frowning.

But that is a detail often omitted, and cannot be relied on to indicate the meaning. If the comma is present, #2 is pretty much ruled out.

To make #2 clear, the sentence could be recast:

  • Daisy looked at Tom, noticing his frown.
  • Daisy looked at Tom as he frowned.

Or context could be added in a nearby sentence.

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    This must be the best answer, because it's the only one that mentions that crucial point about the comma. – FumbleFingers May 15 at 17:35
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    I"m not sure the comma by itself helps that much, but changing word order too, really makes it clear: "Daisy, frowning, looked at Tom", (Jason Bassford's 1a) or "Frowning, Daisy looked at Tom". – Monty Harder May 15 at 18:12
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    I'm surprised this is considered ambiguous. Could "He watched the dog eating" genuinely mean "He ate while watching the dog"? – JollyJoker May 16 at 8:54
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    The comma is crucial. With the comma, the meaning is unambiguously #1. Without the comma, the meaning seems to be #2, with the ambiguity being entirely due to the fact that so many people do not use commas correctly. Strictly speaking, without the comma, it can only mean #2. – No U May 16 at 18:00
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    @MichaelW.: Well, that's a rather prescriptivist way of looking at it. This is a famous work of literature. If enough other authors make similar "errors," in enough published works and over a long enough period of time, then we must conclude that it is not an error at all, but part of the English language. – Kevin May 17 at 3:51
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Note: I gave this answer before it was edited to provide additional context. At the time, the only phrase provided was:

Daisy looked at Tom frowning.


It's ambiguous and could be interpreted either way.

To make it explicit, one way or the other, you could do the following (the list is not exhaustive):

1a. Daisy, frowning, looked at Tom.
1b. Daisy looked at Tom and frowned.
1c. Daisy frowned as she looked at Tom.

2a. Daisy looked at Tom, who was frowning.
2b. Daisy looked at a frowning Tom.

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    Agreed: without the extra context, this is definitely a sentence that needs to be rewritten. – David Richerby May 15 at 18:12
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    "Note: I gave this answer before it was edited to provide additional context." - If part of your answer is outdated or invalid, you should edit it to fix it or add the relevant information, as if it were always the best version of itself. – V2Blast May 16 at 10:46
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    @V2Blast Edits to questions that invalidate existing answers are considered wrong, and they should normally be rolled back. Had the question been posed as it is now, I would not have provided an answer at all, as it involves a certain degree of textual analysis that I'm uncomfortable with and an amount of time I don't want to spend. In lieu of rolling back questions, existing answers should have comments added, such as I did here. You can read about it in this meta discussion. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica May 16 at 13:54
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    The OP did provide context—not only identifying the source, but providing a direct link to the right spot in the version of the source in use. My edit to the OP only provided additional context to save casual visitors an extra click. As such, respectfully, if you think the answer is "invalid" now, it has always been invalid. – choster May 16 at 14:24
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    @choster Link-only information is frowned upon. Whatever is relevant to a question or answer should be put directly into the question or answer. The question was originally framed in a way that made it sound different from the source from which it was drawn. It's quite possible that you could ask a question based on source material, but change something in order to produce a different scenario. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica May 16 at 15:48
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The sentence is ambiguous and could mean either of your suggestions.

However, in context, there is almost no description of Daisy, and a lot about the others, and I'd at first read it that Tom's and Gatsby's expressions being described. On closer reading, it makes more sense that she is reacting quizzically to his "apparently pointless remark", as there is plot significance to drug stores which comes out later.

“Plenty of gas,” said Tom boisterously. He looked at the gauge. “And if it runs out I can stop at a drug-store. You can buy anything at a drug-store nowadays.”

A pause followed this apparently pointless remark. Daisy looked at Tom frowning, and an indefinable expression, at once definitely unfamiliar and vaguely recognizable, as if I had only heard it described in words, passed over Gatsby’s face.

To make yourself explicit, you can say:

  • Daisy frowned and looked at Tom. (She is frowning)
  • Daisy looked at Tom and frowned. (She is frowning)
  • Daisy looked at Tom, who was frowning. (He is frowning)
3

Taken on its own merits, the sentence is ambiguous, and that issue has been described by other respondents. However, taken in context from The Great Gatsby, the only interpretation is that Daisy is frowning.

Tom's emotional condition was set by the first paragraph. He's boisterous, "marked by or expressive of exuberance and high spirits." Thus, we know that Tom is not frowning.

That only leaves Daisy, who is reacting to Tom. Her frowning expression suggests disapproval and/or confusion.

No author is perfect. No editor evaluating a book for publication is perfect. It's common to find quirky sentences like this in a book. In a "perfected" form, the sentence should have read:

Daisy frowned as she looked at Tom.

As an aside, this is a good example of why context should always be provided when asking "what does this sentence mean?" questions.

1

The other way to approach this, which I don't see covered in any of the existing answers, is by looking at the overall structure of these two paragraphs. Essentially, it's

  1. Tom makes a statement
  2. Daisy and Gatsby react (negatively) to it

As others have pointed out, Tom makes a boisterous observation -- so clearly isn't the one frowning -- and this is immediately framed in the second paragraph as being an "apparently pointless remark", and it goes on to explain the two reactions (of the others, not Tom) to said remark. So Daisy frowns, and Gatsby reacts in his more inscrutable way ("indefinable expression, at once definitely unfamiliar and vaguely recognizable").

It's true that the sentence taken in isolation, without a comma, could be interpreted either way, but in the larger context of these two paragraphs, it can only mean Daisy was the one frowning.

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