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I tried to understand this sentence. (IELTS sentence)

The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed THEN AS 'snake oil' IS NOT SO MUCH THAT they failed to live up to the outrageous claims made for them - those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous.

I don't understand the meaning of "then as it is not so much that"

what does it mean?

  • 2
    In such context, 'then' takes you to that era/time/period. Say, "I'm talking about the calculators, quite popular then...." – Maulik V Mar 11 '15 at 13:03
  • It's not the best example; I'm surprised the teacher is using it. Strictly, it is correct, but "is not so much that" would usually come paired with a subsequent "but rather that". So the example would be something like: "The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil' IS NOT SO MUCH THAT they failed to live up to the outrageous claims made for them BUT RATHER THAT those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous." (The "...THAT those that..." is clumsy, but I've left it in so as not to distract from the point in question.) – tkp Mar 11 '15 at 16:11
  • The original has poor grammar. The pattern is "not so much X as Y", and using it without the word "as" makes about as much sense as using "either" without a following "or". tkp's version works too, although I see "as" used much more frequently than "but rather" in this context. – Ben Voigt Mar 11 '15 at 20:53
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I'd recommend parsing sentences (also known as bracketing sentences or diagramming sentences). It could be fun. And it will help you understand difficult sentences much more easily.

Here is your original sentence:

The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil' is not so much that they failed to live up to the outrageous claims made for them - those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous.

Here is an equivalent sentence, but with symbols instead of secondary expressions (which are modifying the main ideas or clauses):

The remarkable thing about X is not so much that Y - Z.

Much simpler, right?

What are X, Y, and Z, then?

X = many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil'
Y = they failed to live up to the outrageous claims made for them
Z = those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous

X is just a noun phrase. What's the remarkable thing about? It's about X. It's about "many of the medicines". It's about "many of the medicines (that were) dismissed (back) then". It's about "many of the medicines (that were) dismissed (back) then as 'snake oil".

Y is just a clause, which I believe that it's now easy for you to understand. Z is also just another clause, which could be written as a standalone sentence as well, if the writer wanted to. The dash was used to make the thoughts more coherent.

My main point is that then as 'snake oil' is not so much that is not a single unit in your sentence. (Technically, this is a non-constituent. A constituent is a group of words that functions as a single unit.) That's why you couldn't understand the sentence. It's because you group words the wrong way. How can we remedy that? Learning how to parse sentences would be a good idea.

Trust me. Parsing sentences is fun!

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I think the core of your confusion is the then. You're reading it as introducing a new subclause, but it isn't; it's providing a timeframe for dismissed. The high-level structure of this sentence is

The remarkable thing            # primary subject
  about many of the medicines   # restriction: THING is about MEDICINES 
    [which were]                # implicit further restriction
    dismissed then              # the medicines were dismissed, in the past
    as 'snake oil'              # why they were dismissed
is                              # main verb
  not so much that              # the remarkable thing is not what follows
    they failed ...             #  (the medicines were ineffective)
  -                             # implicit "but instead":
    ... dangerous               #  (they were outright dangerous)

Your confusion may be caused by the telegraphic nature of this sentence. In two places, words have been omitted, and the reader is expected to understand them from context. This is common in informal English, so it's something you need to learn, but it does make understanding harder.

This sentence is also overly elaborate for what it's trying to say. This is a hallmark of a particular style of nonfiction writing: I think it's probably taken from a book-length work on the history of medicine and/or fraud. It could be more plainly said:

These medicines were dismissed, even at the time, as 'snake oil'. But what's even more remarkable is that many of them were not just ineffective, but positively dangerous.

It may also help to know that 'snake oil' is an idiom in English for medicine (and by extension, any commercial product) that doesn't do what its makers say it does, and its makers know that: they are deceiving people in order to make money.

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There are two facts presented here about the 'snake oil' medicines:

  1. They failed to live up to the outrageous claims made about them.
  2. Some were just colored water, but others were positively dangerous.

Of those two facts, the author says, the more remarkable fact is the second.


ETA: "Then as" isn't really part of the construction. That is just there to let you know that at the time these liquids were being sold (THEN) AS medicine, they were considered nothing more than 'snake oil' (fakes).

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The remarkable thing about many of the medicines dismissed THEN AS 'snake oil' IS NOT SO MUCH THAT they failed to live up to the outrageous claims made for them - those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous.

You've parsed the sentence incorrectly and, sticking with a false assumption, tried to decode a meaningless phrase. As such, your question is an XY question; it would have been better to ask us what the whole sentence means.

Here's how you should read the sentence:

  The remarkable thing
about
  many of the medicines dismissed then as 'snake oil'

is not so much that
  they failed to live up to the outrageous claims made for them
[but that]
  those that weren't harmless coloured water could be positively dangerous.

The idiom here is:

It is not so much that X, but that Y.

It means, loosely that, although X is true, Y is more true, or more relevant, or more of whatever the context calls for.

  • In this case, it's "more remarkable" that the snake oil medicines could be actively harmful, than that someone had lied about them.

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