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Then I noticed a small plate of complimentary marshmallows near Chloe’s elbow and it suddenly seemed clear that I didn’t love Chloe so much as marshmallow her. What it was about a marshmallow that should suddenly have accorded so perfectly with my feelings toward her, I will never know, but the word seemed to capture the essence of my amorous state with an accuracy that the word “love,” weary with overuse, simply could not aspire to. Even more inexplicably, when I took Chloe’s hand and told her that I had something very important to tell her, that I marshmallowed her, she seemed to understand perfectly, answering that it was the sweetest thing anyone had ever told her.
(Alain de Botton, On Love, p.80)

My mother tongue being quite different from English, reading the latter language's structure of the highlighted part is in fact more than working out a most difficult puzzle. This is what I understood: what is shifted from the position of complement of about and what clause is the complement of will never know. This would have remained no question if there was the that in front of a marchmallow. If then, that clause simply should have been seen as so-called a real subject with dummy-subject, it. Would you solve me the puzzle?

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  • I think you can read it like this: I will never know what it was about a marshmallow that should suddenly have accorded so perfectly with my feelings toward her. It's an attributive clause in which the antecedent is what it was about a marshmallow, not a marshmallow. – Kinzle B Jun 10 '14 at 14:07
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I take this to be an it-cleft embedded in a free relative clause, with the whole construction left-extraposed.

  • it-cleft ... to focus a subject, it is made the complement of an It BE clause, and its predicate is transformed into a relative clause:

    [[Something] about a marshmallow] suddenly accorded so perfectly with my feelings.

    It was [[something] about a marshmallow] that suddenly accorded so perfectly with my feelings.

  • free relative clause ... to transform the clause into an NP, the focal constituent is replaced by an interrogative pronoun, which is moved to the head of the clause:

    It was something about a marshmallow that suddenly accorded so perfectly with my feelings.
                    ⇓
       ⇓      ⇦  What
    What it was about a marshmallow that suddenly accorded so perfectly with my feelings.

  • extraposition ... This NP, the direct object of I will never know, is moved to the head of the main clause:

    I will never know [what &c]
                             ⇦
        ⇓
    [What &c] I will never know.

The it in the it-cleft, upon which your question turns, is controversial: some authorities hold it to be an expletive (‘dummy’) pronoun, others hold it to be an ordinary pronoun with cataphoric (forward-pointing) reference. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

(Note that I have ignored the should...have construction; that is a modal ornament which belongs semantically to the I will never know stage of construction/analysis.)


Just to confuse things, I seem to remember that McCawley calls the free relative an ‘embedded question’ in this sort of context (I will never know)—so this is an embedded embedding! I am irresistibly reminded of Churchill’s characterization of Russian policy as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

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  • I remember the gap behind ‘was’ being flashed! But it brushed away before I knew. The ‘enigma’ led me to read in Wikipedia etc about my mother tongue’s origin, which I’d been heard be Altaic, yet there’s none articulate theory. ‘Language Isolate’ may be the most reasonable one, I heard the first time solving the op’s enigma. Having said several times, learning other language really proves my knowledge on my own. Thank you very much. You’ve led me to understand what you wrote. – Listenever Jun 10 '14 at 15:07
  • @Listenever Yes: for me, too, the great advantage of learning other languages has been giving me a broader perspective on my own. I'm afraid we're turning you into a linguist! :) – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 10 '14 at 15:17
  • You need not be afraid, for my learning language is concentrated on how they think, act, getting through their secular lives, not on rules, theory. There seem to be people who are interested in theories. For me, however, I love the axiom, “get away the fish trap when you get fish.” McCawley, Bas, Downing, Pullum; Altaic theory, etc. are traps not fish for me. Thank you again. – Listenever Jun 10 '14 at 15:43
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    @Listenever Interesting proverb! We say just the opposite: "Give a man a fish, he has one dinner. Teach a man to fish, he has dinner for life." – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 10 '14 at 15:47
  • That's an axiom from Lao Zi. Budda has a similar idea: you can get rid of a boat once it helps you get across the river. And so does Confucius. The sage has no choice but to use words to guide you. Once you get awake from what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel, words will become the least important. Let's say, your eyes are colorless so they can differentiate all kinds of color; your ears are soundless so they differentiate all kinds of sounds, etc. Knowledge can pollute one's knowledgeless mind if one focuses much on it. This is how we are different from western culture. @StoneyB – Kinzle B Jul 4 '14 at 16:14

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