What parts of speech are the each of the individual words in as penniless as when. For example when used in the following sentence:

They were as penniless as when the little man found them.

  • That's a very, very good question! I think the problem your going to have is that people are going to think I understand that sentence easily, so the grammar must be very simple. They might vote to close this. I doubt many people here can tell us what part of speech that first as is, or the when either. Very good syntax and grammar question. Oct 5, 2014 at 13:54
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    The difference between I was as naked as the day I was born and I was as good as gold is that in the former (which matches OP's example) the stuff after the second as modifies an implied repetition of the main subject/verb (as they were when the little man found them, ...as I was when I was born). In the latter, it modifies the relevant adjective (penniless, good) - no subject/verb has been "deleted". Oct 5, 2014 at 14:33
  • @FumbleFingers Seems to me there's a second 'naked' implied there too. Something like I was as naked as I was naked the day I was born. Not sure, if that's the case. But if it is then I'm also not sure that it's not that second naked that's being targeted semntically by the second as - if that makes any sense ... Oct 5, 2014 at 16:17

1 Answer 1


They were as penniless as when the little man found them.

The first as in this sentence is a Degree Adverb. It is modifying the Adjective penniless. As indicates the degree of the pennilesness as it were. As, like the Degree Adverb so, is anaphoric, we have to look to a different part of the sentence to interpret the extent to which ‘they were penniless’. We need something to index the pennilessness against.

The second as, although it looks like the first, is actually a Preposition. It introduces a benchmark which is met or surpassed in some way. So some people call this phrase an equative phrase. Like many other Prepositions, as can take as it's complement either a Noun Phrase or a clause (some people call Prepositions like this Subordinating Conjunctions when the occur before a clause).

In comparative sentences like this, a lot of the material in the comparative clause is usually missing. It can be easily reconstructed by the listener, because it is material that also occurs in the superordinate clause. Here a full reconstruction of the sentence would be:

  • They were as penniless as they were penniless when the little man found them.

The comparative clause inside the Prepositional Phrase is:

  • they were penniless when the little man found them.

It is easy to see in the reconstructed sentence that when the little man found them is an adjunct (read adverbial). It is a temporal adjunct modifying They were penniless. Similarly to the second as, when is also a Preposition and heads its own Preposition Phrase. The complement of the Preposition is the sentential clause:

  • the little man found them.
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    Did you think we might miss your Important Words and so you took it upon yourself to Capitalize Them? :) None of those putative POS tags merit majusculation.
    – tchrist
    Oct 5, 2014 at 21:19
  • @tchrist but point taken ... Oct 5, 2014 at 21:33
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    If was the cap-mismatch of degree Adverb that put me off. I’d prefer both in lowercase, and could possibly bring myself to live with both in uppercase by looking the other way, but mismatch puzzles me.
    – tchrist
    Oct 5, 2014 at 21:40

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