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Sarah Kemple said Stirling was the only one who knew about the explosives. He said he was trying to prevent a mistake. Which, at the time, the FBI assumed meant him being arrested.

I came across a tricky sentence while watching a US drama. Please tell me what that sentence means and the original form of the sentence with the explanation of how the original sentence end up being "I assumed meant him being arrested"?

  • This is very odd. You may have misunderstood, or it may be a fragment whose meaning is clear in context. In any case, we're going to need a couple of sentences on either side of this to understand what's going on. – StoneyB Feb 24 '15 at 14:15
  • Sorry, I added more sentences which can help you figure out what is going on now. – KeepCoding Feb 24 '15 at 14:18
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"I assumed meant him being arrested." This is not quite a complete sentence. But I don't think that's what's causing your problem. Let's look at the pieces.

The subject and verb are easy enough. The subject is "I". The verb is "assumed". So the sentence is saying that the speaker assumed something.

You have to "assume" some claimed fact or event. Like, "I assumed Bob was tall" or "I assumed the theory of relativity was proven."

The tricky part of this sentence is "him being arrested". This is a phrase acting as a noun. It is basically taking an action -- someone is arrested -- and turning it into a noun. Like we will often say things like, "I saw Sally studying in the library". We are using "studying in the library" as a noun: that is the thing I saw.

In this case, the speaker is saying that something meant that this person was arrested.

So that's the flaw to the sentence: It does say what it was that meant this. Presumably the speaker means that this person said he was trying to prevent a mistake. That is, they thought that what he MEANT was that HIM BEING ARRESTED would be a mistake.

This problem could easily be fixed by adding "it", i.e. "I assumed it meant him being arrested", with "it" referring back to what "he" said.

  • It was the "assumed meant" part that confused me. As far as I know, both are verbs and you cannot use two verbs in a row. You said it's incomplete sentence, so I understand it now. However, is it okay to use incomplete sentences? Also, what part of a sentence is usually left out when being an incomplete one? – KeepCoding Feb 24 '15 at 15:24
  • Whether an incomplete sentence is acceptable depends on the level of formality of the writing. In casual conversation, people use incomplete sentences all the time. "Where you going?" "Hardware store." "Oh, getting more paint?" "And nails. Ran out." Etc. I wouldn't use incomplete sentences in a paper for English class. Exactly what you can omit is a big question. We often omit pronouns that we think are obvious, like in this case. – Jay Feb 24 '15 at 15:30
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This is pretty complicated, with three-deep subordinate clauses, C1, C2 and C3.

  1. What follows mistake is not a complete sentence but a relative clause. The full stop after mistake indicates that what follows is a "supplement" or afterthought; the formal relationships are clearer if you point it this way:

    He said he was trying to prevent a mistake—which, at the time, the FBI assumed meant him being arrested.

    This relative clause, C1, thus modifies a mistake. The relative pronoun which stands for the phrase a mistake within the clause; it replaces it and is moved to the front of the clause.

    [C1 Which the FBI assumed a mistake ... ]

    In what follows I'll undo that replacement.

  2. Within that relative clause, a mistake looks at first glance like the object of the verb assume. Actually, however, a mistake is actually the subject of another subordinate clause, C2; this is clearer if we restore the optional subordinator that:

    [C1 The FBI assumed [C2 that "a mistake" meant X ] ] ... (I'll have more to say about X in a minute.)

    [That "a mistake" meant X] is the complement of the verb assume.

  3. Finally: X, the complement of the verb meant, is a third subordinate clause, C3. In this case it is a gerund clause, him being arrested.

    [C1 The FBI assumed [C2 that "a mistake" meant [C3 him being arrested. ] ] ]

    Note that the subject of a gerund complement clause is not expressed in the subjective case (he) but in either the objective case (him) or the possessive case. Using the possessive case gives the gerund a 'nounier' feel and puts the emphasis on the fact, using the objective case gives the gerund a 'verbier' feel and puts the emphasis on the action.

The entire clause may be paraphrased:

At the time, the FBI assumed that what he meant by "preventing a mistake" was that he was trying to prevent his own arrest.

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