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I'm proofreading a friend's paper, and she often creates sentences of the form:

Sentence, gerund-phrase

Examples:

Consumers may question the legitimacy of producer actions, determining their practices undermine the community.

Groups operate as focal points, creating a sense of community.

Research typically focuses on what unites individuals within a community, documenting consumer's shared experiences.

Is there a name for such a sentence structure? For me, although I can understand the intent of the sentence, I think they're a bit confusing and could be better worded:

Consumers may question the legitimacy of producer actions and determine that their practices undermine the community.

Groups operate as focal points and create a sense of community.

Research typically focuses on what unites individuals within a community and documents consumer's shared experiences.

Does anyone have any experience or opinions on the matter?

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Your change to the second sentence changes the meaning. In the original, it is the focal points that groups operate as that creates the sense of community. In your sentence, groups both operate as focal points and create a sense of community. It's possible that they create a sense of community by operating as focal points but equally possible they do it some other way. The original sentence says groups -> focal points -> sense of community. Yours says groups -> (focal points and sense of community). –  David Schwartz Apr 13 '12 at 5:40
    
@David I guess my point is that the first sentence is ambiguous. It can be parsed either way: (1) groups operate as focal points and groups create, or (2) groups operate as focal points, and focal points create a sense of community. I realize now that the reason I dislike this sentence structure is because of this ambiguity. –  doofuslarge Apr 13 '12 at 13:33
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4 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

In terms of nomenclature, they're commonly referred to as "gerundive clauses" or "gerundive adjuncts" among other things. How satisfactory this nomenclature is obviously depends a little on your precise analysis of what a "gerund" is.

[In a strict definition, a "gerund" is usually taken to be an -ing form with predominantly verb-like features-- so having a subject and object, being passivisable etc-- while at the same time filling a structural position (subject of the sentence, complement of a verb or preposition etc) where you would ordinarily get a noun phrase. You have the slight problem here that it's not always obvious that such clauses fill a slot where you'd ordinarily get a noun phrase-- but it does depend a bit on your analysis.]

If you're not too fussy, you could maybe just think of them as 'a clause with an -ing form for the verb that fills a position in the sentence where you'd normally get an adverbial or prepositional phrase'.

It's a common, natural structure in English and various other languages. Because the subject is implied rather than overtly stated, there is a danger of ambiguity in a few cases. However, usually it is clear who or what the implied subject is. The trap that many prescriptivists fall into is to (wrongly) assume that the implied subject of the gerundive clause has for some reason to be the same subject as the outer clause. In reality, it can be other things. For example, in:

"How many glasses were broken washing up?"

the implied subject of "washing up" is itself the implied agent of the passive "were broken". And yet, despite this complexity, the meaning is perfectly clear.

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Thanks for this information. I agree that they are all grammatical, valid sentences, and in most cases the intended meaning can be extracted. But The danger of ambiguity is what I don't like. –  doofuslarge Apr 13 '12 at 13:40
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Well, that´s one of the things that a careful writer needs to assess... just as with any other sentence of English that they write. But there's no need to invent ambiguities where they don't exist (which is what the prescriptivist approach tends to do). –  Neil Coffey Apr 13 '12 at 14:07
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I would not describe any of your examples as using a gerund, but in every case as an adjectival phrase introduced by a present participle.

I would call them all grammatical, though some would disagree as the phrase modifies the whole sentence, not a single NP in it.

I do think that they are awkward and unclear, particularly the first one where the omission of "that" after "determining" makes it something of a garden-path sentence.

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Depending on your analysis, analysing as a "gerund" is potentially OK. If you take a gerundive to be a VP inside an NP (or at any rate some structure that ultimately allows you to have a VP inside a slot normally filled by an NP), then it does mean you have to posit some structure to allow the NP in this case, where normally you'd expect a prepositional/adverbial adjunct (so e.g. a PP with a covert preposition-- languages like French that allow an optional preposition would support this). But that's potentially OK, depending on your stance. –  Neil Coffey Apr 13 '12 at 4:58
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The structure of the sentences you have mentioned is grammatical.

We can use this structure when a subordinated clause expresses an action that the subject does by another action.

Let us consider your second example. Here, "to operate" is the action that groups do, but from this action derives an effect (another action) which consists in "to create" 'a sense of community'.

So, if you want to make the sense I described above, you could use the "gerund" form.

To better understand what I said, consider, for example, that your second example could be rewording as follow: "Operating of groups as focal point create a sense of community".

If the two actions are logically separated (i.e.: you do not want to make the sense that the 'second action' depends on 'first action'), you could use the normal form.

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This structure is grammatical, but sentences written this way can often be unclear or hard to parse.

To clear things up, try replacing the comma with something like and or thereby.

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