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Such sarcasm ill becomes anybody on the shaky ground that Goldschmidt here treads.

Shouldn't ill be before sarcasm?

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    You'll often see it written as "ill-becomes", with a hyphen. I'm not sure why one isn't being used here. Americans have a tendency to avoid hyphens, but this quote sounds British.
    – wjandrea
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 16:37
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    @wjandrea You might often see it but I'm not sure how proper it is considering 'ill' is an adverb here - you wouldn't write 'hardly-becomes'
    – Angelos
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:25
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    @Angelos Oh, maybe I'm wrong actually. Maybe I'm thinking of when a hyphen is used in an adjective phrase, like "ill-adapted" (as gotube quoted from Merriam-Webster). Cf. "poorly-defined", "freshly-made", "widely-known".
    – wjandrea
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:39

3 Answers 3

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The sentence is correct. Here, "ill" is an adverb roughly meaning "badly", and it modifies "becomes".

See this Merriam-Webster definition:

ill adverb
worse; worst
1 a : in a faulty, inefficient, insufficient, or unpleasant manner —often used in combination
// the methods used may be ill-adapted to the aims in view

It's also worth noting that the word "become" has a far less common meaning as well, which is in the sense of the adjective "becoming", meaning "suitable" or "fitting".

So your quoted sentence roughly means, "Sarcasm like that is a bad fit for someone in Goldschmidt's position."

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ill becomes is an idiomatic phrase that means "is not suitable for", or "is not appropriate for"; an old-fashioned meaning for become is "to be appropriate or suitable; to look good on". So the sentence means something like "Sarcasm like this is not appropriate for anybody..."

Changing it to "Such ill sarcasm becomes anybody..." doesn't make sense. It makes ill into a modifier for sarcasm, which isn't what's intended. Also, "Such ill sarcasm becomes ____" either means the sarcasm is turning into something else (which completely changes the meaning) or the sarcasm is appropriate, which reverses the meaning of the sentence!

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    It’s worth pointing out that while “Such ill sarcasm becomes...” has a very different meaning, it does have meaning, and it is still grammatically correct, it just means a different thing.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 4:03
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    Might be worth adding that "becoming" in this old-fashioned sense most often comes up in modern English in legal references within the word unbecoming, for example "conduct unbecoming an officer", meaning conduct not appropriate for an officer. Pretty much the same meaning as "ill becoming". Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 5:09
  • @KRyan: "ill sarcasm" has meaning?
    – TonyK
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 20:37
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    @TonyK Sure! It’s not a set phrase or anything (the way “ill becomes” is), but “ill” can be an adjective, meaning vile or evil. It’s more than a bit archaic, but I can easily imagine a curmudgeonly moral guardian type referring to “such ill sarcasm” while complaining about the youth or some such.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 20:40
  • @KRyan: then your imagination is more fertile than mine!
    – TonyK
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 20:45
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To build on what @stangdon has said:

If you were to place ill before sarcasm then you would using ill as an adjective and applying it to the word sarcasm. Essentially you would be writing Ill-Sarcasm: sarcasm used in an inappropriate way (which is understandable to a native speaker, but is not grammatically correct).

This would completely change the meaning of the sentence.

"Such sarcasm ill becomes anybody on the shaky ground that Goldschmidt here treads." means: sarcasm doesn't suit somebody on shaky ground

"Such ill-sarcasm becomes anybody on the shaky ground that Goldschmidt here treads." means: ill-sarcasm does suit somebody on shaky ground.

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    -1 "Ill-sarcasm" is bad English. "Sarcasm" is a noun, and we don't hyphenate adjective-noun combinations. Further, there are several adjectival definitions of "ill", but none of them mean "inappropriate".
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 17:06
  • Yes. Ill-Sarcasm is bad English, I was explaining this, and I was hyphenating to illustrate the connection, it might not be grammatically correct, but it serves the purpose under these circumstances. There are also several uses of the word "ill" that can mean "inappropriate". For example, example if somebody misreads the signals and makes a sexually inappropriate comment. That comment could be described as being "ill judged". Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 17:54
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    Your answer suggests "ill sarcasm" is good English by defining it and not stating it's bad English. "Ill judged" means "badly judged", so again "ill" just means "badly". "Ill-adapted" means "badly adapted", not "inappropriately adapted".
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 17:58
  • I will edit my answer so that other people don't make the same mistake you made. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 5:38

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