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While doing copywork today, I came across this sentence:

Tall and well made, the men dressed in dark silk coats that buttoned down the sides of the chest and were elaborately embroidered in silver or gold. Each one looked like a general on the field.

How can silk coats button themselves down? Shouldn't it have been "dark silk coats that were buttoned down to the sides of the chest?"

Is "were" elided for brevity's sake because it can be inferred from the context or is it not needed at all?

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    Buttons is intransitive here. The coats fasten by means of buttons. This door opens inward
    – DjinTonic
    Oct 17, 2021 at 17:03
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    I would have taken issues with “tall and well made”. Unless they were “made men” in the Mafia sense.
    – Jim
    Oct 17, 2021 at 18:52
  • ... or perhaps the Uruk-hai sense. Oct 17, 2021 at 19:00
  • @DjinTonic Thank you!
    – Steven Nadella
    Oct 18, 2021 at 5:03
  • This coat buttons down [at] the front (as opposed to passive ...is buttoned down...) is the same kind of "inverted" verb usage as, say, This wine is drinking well, where the subject uses a verb "actively" instead of passively. It won't work in all contexts, and not all native speakers will agree on exactly when it does or doesn't work, but I personally have no problem with the cited usage. Oct 20, 2021 at 15:10

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From the comments, FumbleFingers says:

This coat buttons down [at] the front (as opposed to passive ...is buttoned down...) is the same kind of "inverted" verb usage as, say, This wine is drinking well, where the subject uses a verb "actively" instead of passively. It won't work in all contexts, and not all native speakers will agree on exactly when it does or doesn't work, but I personally have no problem with the cited usage.

I agree with this. "The way a piece of clothing is fastened" can be described in the active voice, even when this might not make logical sense:

A coat that buttoned down the sides
A dress which zips up the back
Shoes that Velcro shut

This usage of the active voice is especially common when describing the location (and direction) of the fastening mechanism ("down the sides," "up the back").


"Tall and well made," however, is not correct.

First of all, "well-made" is a compound adjective and must be hyphenated. But more importantly, "Tall and well-made" describes "the men"—and this does not make sense.

We do not describe humans as being "made" (except in a specific non-gradable context meaning "a member of the Mafia"). In the context of religion it is common to talk about some "Creator" which created humanity, and perhaps even individual humans, but we use the word "created" and not "made." "Made" is reserved only for deliberately constructed things.

Somewhat confusingly, we do use the adjectives "built"1 and "well-built"2 to describe a person.

So if the sentence means that the men were both tall and athletic-looking:

Tall and well-built, the men dressed in dark silk coats...

But if instead the coats are tall (long) and well-constructed:

The men dressed in tall well-made dark silk coats...

Or if the men are tall and the coats are well-constructed:

The tall men dressed in well-made dark silk coats...

Note that if there is only one adjective describing the men, it must come after the article. "Tall, the men dressed in..." would be incorrect.


1Wiktionary: (informal) well-built, muscular or toned.
2Wiktionary: Muscular and lean, having a body resembling that of an athlete.

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  • I didn't notice it before, but you're quite right to flag up that erroneous initial "dangling modifier" in OP's text. Syntactically, it's the men who are being described as both tall AND well-made, which makes no sense at all. I'm sure linguists / grammarians have a word for when verbs like to button, to drink, to zip are used in this way (where what would normally be the object in a transitive use of the verb is switched to a "self-referential" intransitive usage with that object as the subject). Oct 20, 2021 at 17:03
  • (I'm still hoping someone here will know the technical term for such "inverted" verb usages... :) Oct 20, 2021 at 17:09

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