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The following sentence is from GRE Text Completion.

This book cannot be evaluated properly without examining the author's choice of format, which is the inverse of the format of standard academic works; here the photographs take center stage, with the text playing only a supporting role. This layout poses many dangers for the serious historian, not the least of which being the scornful reception that academics - motivated partly by snobbish elitism but also by genuine concern over scholarly standards - generally reserve for books apparently aimed at the popular market.

Does the serious historian refer to the author?

I am also confused about the phrase "not the least of which".

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  • Serious historian must be the author. But I'm not 100% sure. Jul 17, 2023 at 7:24
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    Hi Lucy. Please remember to include a link to the source in the body of your question. Or at least tell us who wrote this paragraph. Also note the difference between an apostrophe ' and a grave accent ` And don't use the accent as an apostrope.
    – James K
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:35
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    amateur historians versus serious historians. No, it does not. It refers to historians that are readers of the text as opposed to general readers. In other words, it is not well done.
    – Lambie
    Jul 17, 2023 at 18:00

6 Answers 6

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The text refers to the author, but not directly. It makes a general point "Any serious historian would put their reputation in danger by using a layout with lots of pictures". It then expects the reader to apply that to the author, if you think the author is serious.

"Not the least of which" is an idiom, discussed on our sister site. Where it says "not the least (or smallest) danger" the text means "one of the most important dangers". It is an example of "litotes", saying "not the least" to mean "one of the most"

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    Yes, I am referring to that author too. "The serious historian" is only an oblique reference to the author. Using a picture-based format would damage the reputation of any serious historian. It is up to the reader to make up their own mind whether "the author" is a serious historian or not.
    – James K
    Jul 17, 2023 at 9:26
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    I do not think it refers to the author at all. It refers to outside readers, as it were.
    – Lambie
    Jul 17, 2023 at 18:02
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    I tend to disagree, but you're free to write your own answer.
    – James K
    Jul 17, 2023 at 18:11
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    @Lambie In general this could refer to readers, but the particular danger mentioned makes it clear that on this occasion it refers to authors. Jul 18, 2023 at 15:19
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    @Lambie Yes, "for the serious historian" could well mean "for any serious historian who reads such a book" in general. But it doesn't make sense to say that a danger for readers is that the book may be scornfully received by academics. Therefore in this instance the writer must have meant "for any serious historian who writes such a book". Jul 19, 2023 at 8:22
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"This layout poses many dangers for the serious historian"

"the serious historian" refers to any serious historian who might write a book in the format being discussed.

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    It's a rather old-fashioned use of the to mean "the typical" or "any".
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 17, 2023 at 19:24
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Does the serious historian refer to the author?

By itself, not necessarily.

"The person" is an idiom used in English, where "a" or "any" would make more grammatical sense, to place emphasis on the adjective. For example, papers about mathematics will often say things like "The interested reader can verify this by induction" (a mathematical technique). Presumably, the authors of such papers expect more than one reader to be interested in doing so.

In this context, the audience for the book being reviewed would also consist of historians. One could argue that any serious historian who saw the book would suspect that the work is inferior, because of its formatting.

However, given the complete sentence, it does appear intended to refer to the author. This is because the primary "danger" described of choosing this book layout is "the scornful reception... reserve[d] for books aimed at the popular market". The author is the person who would be affected by such scorn, not the readers (who are the people who would create the scornful reception).

The phrasing here is still probably not intended to be specific: "serious historian" is probably still meant generally, rather than as an epithet for the author. However, it still obliquely and snidely refers to the author. The idea is: any historian who is actually serious should be troubled by this; the author chose this formatting anyway; thus, the author comes across as incompetent.

I am also confused about not the least of which.

As previously noted, this is an expression that makes use of litotes (i.e., understatement). You can treat "not the least of which being", more or less, as a fancy way to say "in particular".

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    There's a really subtle difference between "any interested reader" and "the interested reader" to my (UK) ear. "Any" is a tiny bit dismissive: "any interested reader (not you). "The interested reader" is more positive and inclusive. Jul 18, 2023 at 9:35
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If this is a multiple choice question on the GRE, I believe the correct answer answer is: no they are not the same.

James K provides a good answer about this in general. But, in a reading comprehension exam, I believe you are expected to conclude that:

  1. "the author" might or might not be a serious historian, and
  2. in this passage "the author" is not the same as "the serious historian", since "the serious historian" does not refer to a specific person as it is used here.
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Not the least of which etc

The phrase can be used to mean "one of the biggest" or "one of the most important." However, this meaning isn't necessarily the meaning implied by the speaker

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In this case "the" emphasizes the adjective "serious". The phrase emphasizes that there is a group of historians who are "serious". Often, but not always, the adjective "serious" separates the elite from the less than elite.

"not the least of which" selects a single danger from the "many dangers". And, then in a reverse manner ("not the least") indicates that the danger noted is substantial. "not the least of which" is a fairly common expression meaning "the biggest" or "probably the biggest".

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