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This is a sentence from Lasher by Anne Rice (USA). I'm not sure about the verb structure. It may be

1 Her friends loved to have Mona help (verb) with their homework. Structure: to have someone do something)

2 They loved to have her help (noun) with the homework.

In my opinion one of the cases where the structure of English words is ambiguous because in this case noun and verb have the same form. I think both views are possible. But I would like to hear how native speakers see it.

3

Her friends loved to have Mona help with their homework.

There help is clearly a verb, because the noun help would demand a possessive Mona's.

Her friends loved to have Mona's help with their homework.

But in the next sentence, without a direct object for help (i.e. "them") my AmE ear takes help to be a noun:

They loved to have her help with their homework.

The possibility that the word could be a noun or a verb does not trigger my ambiguity-sensor. The sentence means the same thing to me in either case.

  • I think the second is more ambiguous grammatically, even if it is not ambiguous in meaning. Check out the answer from @ScotM. – Good A.M. Jan 10 '15 at 23:15
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From time immemorial, help has been used as both a noun and a verb. It is listed in the OED as both:

Help

VERB

[WITH OBJECT] 1. Make it easier or possible for (someone) to do something by offering them one’s services or resources:

NOUN

[MASS NOUN]

  1. The action of helping someone to do something:

The etymology for both usages goes through 5th to 11th century Old English, and the cognates in other languages suggest even more ancient roots.

In any sentence, the syntax will determine the usage of a word, and in the first sentence there is absolutely no ambiguity: help is functioning as a verb.

The ambiguity of the second sentence has nothing to do with help. It is the word her that permits the sentence to be parsed in two different ways:

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Her can be used as a third person singular pronoun or as a possessive determiner:

her

PRONOUN

[THIRD PERSON SINGULAR]

  1. Used as the object of a verb or preposition to refer to a female person or animal previously mentioned or easily identified:

POSSESSIVE DETERMINER

  1. Belonging to or associated with a female person or animal previously mentioned or easily identified:

Parsing the sentence with her as a possessive determiner, help is the head noun of the noun phrase her help with the homework, while her modifies the noun help as a possessive determiner. In this parsing, have takes on the meaning of possess or receive:

They have her help. = They receive Mona's assistance.

Parsing the sentence with her as a third person singular pronoun, her is the object of the verb phrase have her help with the home work, while help is the head verb of the verb phrase help with the homework. In this parsing, have takes on the meaning of cause or arrange:

They have her help. = They arrange for Mona to assist.

Though some would consider the first parsing cleaner and more concise, both parsings are equally correct grammatically. In the end any change in the meaning of the sentence is negligible, so the ambiguity becomes irrelevant for practical communication purposes.

  • For those of us not intimately familiar with the type of tree(?) diagram you’re using here, could you explain why there are so many seemingly superfluous double layers for so many of the words? Like homework, which appears to be a noun in a noun in a noun (in a NP in a PP in a VP in a VP in a VP in a VP in a sentence)? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 10 '15 at 16:05
  • I'm pretty sure this is not the best tool, but it is the tool I have :) Starting at the outer right edge of the bottom chart, homework is a noun (bottom N), modified by the (middle N),serving as the head noun (Top N), within the noun phrase (NP) the homework, which is within the prepositional phrase (PP)*with the homework*, which is within the verb phrase (VP) help with the homework, which is within the verb phrase (VP) have her help with the homework...continuing in that fasion until...all of which are within the sentence (S). Perhaps I could find a better tool? – ScotM Jan 10 '15 at 16:34
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    Oh, I see what you mean now. It was just the repeating identical layers that confused me—I would just have expected it to be blank where the extra ones are. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 10 '15 at 16:43

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