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Recently I had a discussion with someone and the following examples were brought up. I was told that I was wrong, but as a native speaker I don't think any of my explanations of the meaning were wrong, regardless of whether they are classified as adverbials. If I am wrong, can you explain why, preferably giving evidence showing that native speakers do not conceive of these adverbials in the way I claim?

A few days every month, she goes to the park while he stays at home.

The adverbial "a few days every month" modifies the whole sentence "she goes to the park while he stays at home", because it is incorrect to split it into two as in "She goes to the park a few days a month, and he stays at home a few days a month." So the adverbial must be modifying the concept as a whole and not the two verb phrases separately. This is in contrast to the adverbial prepositional phrases "to the park" and "at home", both of which modify only the corresponding verb. Specifically I would parse it as follows:

( A few days every month ) { { she { goes ( to the park ) } } while { he { stays (at home ) } } }

Similarly:

Once a year, a new guard takes over.

The adverbial "once a year" does not modify just the verb phrase "takes over", since it is not that the new guard repeatedly takes over every year (from himself!?). Instead, the adverbial modifies the entire sentence "a new guard takes over.", specifying how frequently that event occurs.

Also:

John rowed, and Jill walked, slowly.

I said that it is possible for "slowly" to modify only "walked", and also possible that it modifies both "rowed" and "walked". The reason is that the two commas allow the sentence to be split in two different ways, resulting in the two different interpretations. My interlocutor, however, did not agree that "slowly" could modify just "walked" alone.

And for:

A few days every month, he goes cycling.

I would say that it is likely in the mind of a native speaker that the adverbial "a few days every month" modifies the whole sentence "he goes cycling", but it is also possible for it to modify only the verb phrase "goes cycling". My reason is that in the first two examples above that is clearly the default way the adverbial is mentally processed since it is set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma/pause. In contrast, when we want the adverbial to modify only the verb phrase, we usually put it right next to the verb phrase, unless we want some special effect such as in the third example.

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    There is no "true meaning" to adverbial. It means "sort of like an adverb" and if there is any true meaning, that's it. Naturally, everybody has their own idea about what adverbs are sort of like. – John Lawler Jan 5 '15 at 4:04
  • @JohnLawler: Sorry I meant "true meaning of these 'adverbials'", not "true meaning of adverbials". I'll edit the title. – user21820 Jan 5 '15 at 9:04
  • @JohnLawler Hear, hear! Seeing as you seem to be vaguely of the same opinion, any chance of a helping reopen vote either here or here by any chance? – Araucaria Jan 5 '15 at 10:31
  • @Araucaria: You gave the same link in both "here"s. – user21820 Jan 5 '15 at 10:53
  • Thank you very much 21820! :-) @JohnLawler, sorry here's the link for the most pertinent question – Araucaria Jan 5 '15 at 10:57
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As to your example:

John rowed, and Jill walked, slowly.

I agree with you that it could be interpreted as referring only to Jill's walking, or as referring to both.

I would suggest that if you wish readers to parse "slowly" as referring only to Jill's walking, try this:

John rowed; and Jill walked, slowly.

If you wish to leave readers guessing as to what you really mean, leave it as is.

  • If you use a semi-colon, shouldn't it be "John rowed; Jill walked, slowly."? At least that was what I was taught. Do you disagree with any of my interpretations of the other adverbials mentioned? Anyway I'm more concerned with spoken English than written English, because spoken English corresponds to native speakers' conception of the language, whereas written English follows some additional prescriptive rules such as the ones involving the use of semi-colons and commas. – user21820 Jan 5 '15 at 9:11
  • Oh, I thought it better not to change your wording, so as to focus on punctuation. Yes, I agree it would work better without the "and" if there's a semicolon. But I wouldn't say you couldn't leave the "and" in. However, if you're more interested in spoken English, and you wish to say that sentence so as to be understood unequivocally as saying that only Jill's walking was slow, there would be no pause whatsoever between "walked" and "slowly". – Brian Hitchcock Jan 6 '15 at 8:59
  • Agreed of course. That example wasn't mine and isn't a sentence I would write anyway. =) – user21820 Jan 7 '15 at 0:28

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