In Hardy's The Distracted Preacher, the first page has this really long sentence:

But when those of the inhabitants who styled themselves of his connection became acquainted with him, they were rather pleased with the substitute than otherwise, though he had scarcely as yet acquired ballast of character sufficient to steady the consciences of the hundred-and-forty Methodists of pure blood who, at this time, lived in Nether-Moynton, and to give in addition supplementary support to the mixed race which went to church in the morning and chapel in the evening, or when there was a tea--as many as a hundred-and-ten people more, all told, and including the parish-clerk in the winter-time, when it was too dark for the vicar to observe who passed up the street at seven o'clock--which, to be just to him, he was never anxious to do.

This is probably a really simple answer, but given the length of this sentence I'm having trouble determining what "he was never anxious to do"? Is it go to a tea? Is it steadying the consciences of / giving supplementary support to the people in the town? Is it becoming acquainted with the inhabitants?

Also curious whether this technically qualifies as a run-on sentence? It's certainly one of the longest ones I've seen, and I'm assuming it is included for comedic effect. I haven't yet read other works of Hardy's, so I don't know if this is a common occurrence.

  • 1
    You have ruled out the possibility that he has never anxious to observe who passed up the street at seven o'clock?
    – user14111
    Nov 26, 2019 at 1:13
  • Well I pretty much ignored the em dash aside in the middle of the sentence because the part in question appears outside of it. Guess the formatting is not rendered faithfully here. And upon further review, it doesn’t make much sense to me that way. But if you think that’s it you could post it as an answer?
    – shim
    Nov 26, 2019 at 2:05
  • To me it feels like he was never anxious to "steady the consciences of the 140 Methodists..." and "to give in addition supplementary support to...", i.e. function as a preacher to those parts of the congregation. But I agree that it is debatable.
    – Jos
    Nov 26, 2019 at 12:50

1 Answer 1


In the winter, the Parish Clerk goes to tea with the Methodists. The vicar turns a blind eye to this:

in the winter-time, when it was too dark for the vicar to observe [...] which [...] he was never anxious to do.

  • 4
    This seems correct. To address what the OP said in comments to rule out this interpretation: it seems that the two em dashes do not mark off an aside from the main sentence, but rather they are independent, marking an aside and then a further aside within the aside.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 28, 2019 at 17:46
  • So, the vicar is not anxious to be looking out at the street so late in the evening? Why does he care who is in the street? He wouldn't be pleased with the preacher mixing in with the wrong crowd? Are teas only happening in the winter time?
    – shim
    Nov 29, 2019 at 0:34
  • 1
    @shim, the parish-clerk always wants to be at the teas, but he knows it isn't proper because the teas are held at the "rival" denomination. Therefore, in the summer when it is still light at 7pm, he does not go, because the vicar might see him pass by on his way. In the winter, it is dark at 7pm, so the clerk feels safe passing by the vicar's residence. But, to be fair to the vicar, he was "never anxious" to observe who might happen to pass by at that time. The vicar did not go out of his way to get the clerk in trouble, but the clerk knew the vicar would have to act if he did see him.
    – randomhead
    Aug 11, 2021 at 21:04

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