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He died a broken man.

One of my students came across this sentence in an article, and a quick search for "he died a * man" yields a plethora of similar ones.

I'm fairly certain this sentence is grammatically correct, and indeed it sounds perfectly correct to my ears. What's irking me is that I don't understand why. Is there a rule whereby intransitive verbs can become transitive in special circumstances?

To further complicate the issue, my student thinks that inserting an as in there will make it clearer:

He died as a broken man.

This sounds a little off to me, but again, I'm not sure why. If anything, the as-ified version sounds more grammatically plausible, as it were.

So my question is twofold:

  1. What is the rule for this type of sentence structure?
  2. What, if any, are the other verbs that can be used in this construction?
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I believe you are correct - The question is about the sentence structure not about the underlying meaning as I see it. – mplungjan Jan 14 '14 at 6:43
"A man died" --> He died a (broken/happy etc.) man – Mari-Lou A Jan 14 '14 at 8:38
@Mari-LouA: Not really; aren't you thinking of "A man died" --> "Died a man"? – PreferenceBean Jan 14 '14 at 10:14
@Mari-LouA: I can't help but disagree with them. "He died as a broken man" sounds entirely cromulent and logical to me. F.E. agrees and managed to explain why a lot better ;-) – PreferenceBean Jan 14 '14 at 12:45
@LightnessRacesinOrbit We are all in agreement. E.Ashton is saying the phrase: "He died as a broken man" is NOT idiomatic; I was trying to illustrate through an example, how someone might teach the structure to learners. He died a man (how did he die?) He died a sad/happy/broken/wealthy man. – Mari-Lou A Jan 14 '14 at 20:14
up vote 21 down vote accepted
  • 1.) He died a broken man.

  • 2.) He died as a broken man.


Both are fine, are grammatical, and are standard English usage.

In your two examples, the expressions "a broken man" are predicative and are functioning as predicative complements (PC).

Here are some related examples:

  • CGEL, page 261, [25]: He died young.

The "young" in that example has a depictive interpretation.

Examples that show the "as" phrase as having a PC as its complement:

  • CGEL, page 636, [4.i]: I regard their behaviour [as outrageous].

  • 2005 textbook, page 140, [27.ii]: I regarded her [as a friend].

There are a lot of verbs that take depictive PCs. CGEL, page 263, [32]:

  • Kim felt [lonely / an intruder].

  • Her son remained [ill / a danger].

  • That seems [plausible / a good idea].

  • Pat proved [reliable / a great asset].

And some more verbs, taken from CGEL, page 263, [33]: feel, look, smell, sound, taste, continue, keep, remain, stay, appear, seem, prove.

Those examples are from CGEL "5.4 Classification of verbs taking predicative complements", subsection "Class 1 verbs: complex-intransitives with depictive PCs". And in "5.4" are more subsections with more different types of classes of verbs taking PCs, on pages 263-266.


(Note: "CGEL" is the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. "2005 textbook" is the 2005 textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar.)


EDITED: In light of a recent comment, here's some additional info as to the use of the preposition "as" in taking PCs -- CGEL page 636,

(b) Predicative complements

The main preposition taking a predicative complement is as: this is the prepositional analogue of the verb be. The whole as phrase may function as complement or adjunct in the larger construction containing it:


  • i. I regard their behaviour [as outrageous]. - - [complement]

  • ii. [As treasurer] I recommend we increase the fees by 10%. - - [adjunct]

The complement is predicative in that it is related to a predicand: the object their behaviour in [i], the subject I in [ii]. In the complement use, the as is selected by the verb -- in this example, by the prepositional verb regard (see Ch. 4, &6.1.2).

If you're interested in using Google Ngram Viewer, then perhaps compare the string "died a * man" vs "died as a * man". In that graph, notice the similar string "died as a young man" and its usage in the year 2000.

To my AmE ear, the versions using "as" are just as good as the versions that don't (caveat: when the "as" is selected by the verb). (Though, for a literary type of register, I can see why authors and editors might more often prefer the versions that don't use the preposition "as".)

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D'oh. I have GKP's tome sitting on a bookshelf in another country. But now that I know what the term for this type of thing is, I can do some more in-depth research with what resources I do have. Thank you kindly! – David John Welsh Jan 14 '14 at 7:46
I don't accept that 'He died as a broken man' is 'fine' or 'standard English usage'. 'He worked on his parents' farm as a boy' means ' . . . during [some of] the time he was a boy'. This sense is not realistic here. And an Ngram for 'died as a broken man' hardly supports the 'standard English usage' claim. Prepositional phrases are often idiosyncratic in meaning, and more care needs to be taken. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 14 '14 at 8:45
To me "Her son remained a danger" is the best complementary example. +1 – PreferenceBean Jan 14 '14 at 10:14
I would also add a further potential distinction, "he died a broken man" could equate to he was a broken man when he died, whereas he died as a broken man could mean that even though he was not broken, he nonetheless died in a fashion reminiscent or similar to a broken man. So yes they are both accurate but the meaning may vary quite a lot. – GMasucci Jan 14 '14 at 14:09
@GMasucci & F.E.: Yes – prepositional phrases have lots of different senses, often unpredictable. F.E. correctly points out that 'He died as a hero' is a standard expression; it may or may not mean the same as 'He died a hero'. 'He died as a young boy' has the same 'sense' (when he was) as 'He died an old man'. I'd say that these expressions have to be examined individually. They're idiosyncratic. Try 'He died a confused / disappointed / bitter man' v 'He died as a confused / disappointed / bitter man.' – Edwin Ashworth Jan 14 '14 at 17:20

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