On ELL a user has asked how to parse the emphasized -ing form in this sentence from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Harry swung at it with the bat to stop it from breaking his nose, and sent it zigzagging away into the air.

I am puzzled how to answer.

Zigzagging could be taken as an adjectival participle modifying it; certainly if you delete zigzagging you're left with away into the air as the ordinary complement demanded by send: you send something somewhere.

But that isn't how the semantics work for me. Send here seems to me to be a causative and zigzag a non-finite verb, which could be paraphrased with an infinitive:

He sent it zigzagging away into the air = He caused it to zigzag away into the air.
He sent him riding away to London. = He caused him to ride away to London.
He sent him packing. = He caused him to pack [i.e., to hurry away].

Thus it zigzagging away seems to me to be a full clause. But I have not found any formal description of subordinate clauses employing the -ing form where the clause does not act as a nominal, and that is clearly not the case here: ordinary NP complements to sent are Direct Objects and Indirect Objects.

So how do Modern Grammars analyze this construction, by what tests do they establish this analysis, and what do they call the construction?

2 Answers 2


McCawley doesn't say much about it, as far as I can see, but it appears to be a variety of the complex of serial verb constructions around motion verbs and their inchoatives and causatives, like the various serial verb constructions mentioned in this freshman grammar exam question (#4, restricted to come and go):

  • Bill went and dug some clams. (go and + V)
  • He asked us to come eat the clams. (come + V)
  • He said “Come and get it!” (come and + V)
  • We’re going to go eat them. (go + V)
  • We'll go swimming afterwards. (go + V-ing)
  • We'll come strolling in late tonight. (come + V-ing)

But there are lots more verbs that cause motion, and motion has a number of verb-like properties, so this construction complex gets much broader in scope. E.g,

Harry swung at it with the bat
to stop it from breaking his nose,

  • went muttering curses out the door
  • came lurching out the door
  • brought her shuddering back to consciousness
  • plucked it screaming out of the air
  • sent it zigzagging away into the air
  • tossed it spinning down the stairs
  • dropped it unmoving into the cauldron

There are a number of possibilities here:
the initial verb part of the serial verb may be

  • an intransitive motion verb (go, come)
  • a transitive causative/inchoative of a motion verb (respectively: take, bring)
  • a transitive verb that entails some kind of induced motion (pluck, send, toss, drop, etc.)

while the gerund part normally describes some property of

  • the motion induced by the verb (lurching, zigzagging, spinning), or
  • the object or person caused to move (muttering, shuddering, screaming, unmoving)

In either case, it is the moving object that functions as subject of the gerund constituent and displays the property; one may give it several different kinds of PS, but I'd treat these more or less the same way I treat phrasal verbs, as a discontinuous construction with two parts that share the semantic load, subject to easy idiomatization and extension to many metaphors.

  • 1
    Thanks, John. This whole “came/went running” type of thing reminds me of all the many progressives in Spanish, like in this answer. (I supplied the translation, and tweaking.)
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 23:19
  • 1
    I might add that anyone wanting some terrific examples of how to use participles and gerunds or serial motion verbs will find them in the Harry Potter books. I once taught a freshman grammar class (the one, in fact, that this exam came from) that used Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as a source of syntactic data. You would not believe how often she uses these constructions; it's one of the things that contributes to the perception of the characters in the story as being alive and in motion. Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 23:28
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    Thank you. This reassures me that I wasn't a) overlooking something obvious or b) making up a problem that wasn't there. The analogy with phrasal verbs, esp. the 'discontinuity' piece, is very suggestive, and 'serial verb construction' has already turned up a fascinating piece by Arnold Zwicky. - And on behalf of writers everywhere, thanks for recognizing we don't do it by accident! Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 2:05
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    Note that this is traditionally called a participle, not a gerund. Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 2:38
  • 1
    @Cerberus I cheat; given the chance, I call it the -ing form. Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 10:50

I think part of your difficulty is that you're trying to make your analysis 'worry' about things that traditional grammar worried about but which aren't really relevant to a modern analysis. Remember that in a modern analysis:

  • you are not constrained to the traditional assumption that every grammatical feature must be overtly present (in other words, you can have things like null subjects and tree nodes that are theoretically assumed to be present but not actually filled by any word/phonetic content);
  • constituents representing traditional notions such as 'clauses' can actually be a hierarchical structure, with different levels of the hierarchy present or absent;
  • there is no obligation to define one single exclusive entity that another entity 'modifies': several nodes can be co-indexed;
  • there is no obligation to shoehorn every single word into one of the traditional categories such as 'adjective': what matters is what node a particular item is attached to, and what is that node's surrounding hierarchy.

In other words, in a modern analysis we could say that what we call a 'normal' clause or sentence is some particular tree hierarchy, e.g. a Verb Phrase inside an Aspect Phrase inside a Tense Phrase (among other levels of hierarchy), and that the what we see as a 'participial' clause is a variant of this structure where the Tense Phrase (among others) is absent. There's no consensus as far as I'm aware on any exact structure, but whatever analysis you choose would need to take into account the fact that there clearly appears to be a VP (since the clause can contain an adverb and complement), and there needs to be some node to account for the presence of the -ing inflection.

  • This is all stuff I get, and it's fairly clear to me how this works. But I find no mention of it in the works I've had access to (OMEG and McCawley) or on the innertoobz. So I'd at least like to know where I should be looking, so I can give my quaerent something more than my gut feel. Somebody's gotta've addressed it. Commented Aug 4, 2013 at 19:38
  • Right, okay; the only thing is that traditional grammar, as I know it, agrees with your bullet points 1 and 2 without any doubt; it also agrees with point 4, except for the small minded; as to 3, you may be partially right there, but, even if you're talking strictly about syntactic modification, there are enough widely recognised constructions apo koinou... in short, beware of the strawman! Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 3:35
  • @StoneyB have you tried doing a journal search for 'syntax participial clauses' or 'syntax small clauses' or that kind of thing? Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 9:22
  • @Cerberus I don't see that TD takes into account these points. Rather, it tends to get itself in a fizz and invent spurious prescriptive rules precisely when e.g. a subject isn't overtly present in clause or it can't work out a single 1-to-1 relationship between words in a sentence. But anyway, my main point is that modern descriptive approaches don't make these assumptions. If you can find an occasional instance of TD also not making these assumptions... well, great, but it doesn't invalidate the general point I'm making AFAICS. Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 9:28
  • I have only very limited access to the academic literature (but that's improving). Aside from the constant terminological waffle over gerund, participle, gerund-participle, &c, what I've found on "participial clause" has been confined to adjunct clauses; discussion of -ing forms heading complements discusses what we traditionally called gerund clauses, ie clauses acting as NPs. Commented Aug 5, 2013 at 11:04

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