I came across the following grammatical terms and example sentences on Wikipedia:

As an adjectival phrase modifying a noun phrase that is the object of a verb, provided the verb admits this particular construction:

    I saw them digging a hole.
    We prefer it standing over there.

As an adverbial phrase, where the role of subject of the nonfinite verb is usually understood to be played by the subject of the main clause. A participial clause like this may be introduced by a conjunction such as when or while:

    Looking out of the window, Mary saw a car go by. 
    We peeled the apples while waiting for the water to boil.

Why are the first two sentences said to have adjectival phrases? I think they are adverbial phrases because they are related to time, not quality. And how are the first two sentences different from the last two?

4 Answers 4

  1. I saw them digging a hole.
  2. We prefer it standing over there.
  3. Looking out of the window, Mary saw a car go by.
  4. We peeled the apples while waiting for the water to boil.

There are several different kinds of construction here.

First, (1) and (3) involve sense verbs (saw, looking), which have quite specialized syntax.

Second, preverbal order in (3) is possible with some kinds of clause; but not all, as Greg points out.

Third, several of these sentences are ambiguous, and the ambiguity changes with the syntax.

  • I saw them digging a hole can mean that I was digging the hole; but normally it doesn't.
  • We prefer it standing over there is likely to be interpreted as referring to sexual preference;
    but Standing over there, we prefer it seems to contrast with Anywhere else, we dislike it,
    which is not the case with (1) or (4) when inverted.
  • (3) and (4) are ordinary locative (hence adverbial) clauses;
    (3) has no introductory adverb nor subject, just the bare gerund clause, plus fronting;
    (4) has no fronting (but would work fine with it, and would not change meaning:
    While waiting for the water to boil, we peeled the apples.

One could go on about the differences and possibilities for subject recovery,
but this is enough to cover some of what Greg didn't.

  • You didn't address the original question. Is it correct to call the first two phrases adjectival? Mar 2, 2015 at 17:44
  • It is if you define "adjectival" so they match the definition, but it's not if you don't define "adjectival" that way. I would call some readings "adjectival" and others not, but that's using my own definitions, not the ones you're using. Mar 2, 2015 at 19:18

The difference between the first two and the last two is that the first two are examples of adjectival phrases.

Why are they adjectival? Because they modify a noun, and not a verb. Your suspicion that it has something to do with time I cannot place in a grammatical context.

I saw them digging a hole.

Digging a hole modifies them: they were digging a hole.

If you insist on reading digging a hole adverbially, it should modify a verb. The only verb to modify is saw. If you want to read the sentence like that, it is possible, but it means something different: I was digging a hole when I saw them.

This shows again the difference between the two sets; the first sentence, written as in the second set of examples, would be:

While digging a hole, I saw them.

Note that they no longer do the digging in that case!

  • Hmmm, how is standing over there adjectival? Is it modifying it ? Mar 2, 2015 at 22:53
  • 1
    @Araucaria: yes, standing over there modifies it. It could mean that we, standing over there, "prefer" it, but that seems a convoluted way of reading that sentence. Compare to _we prefer it big; no doubt you'll agree that big modifies it?
    – oerkelens
    Mar 3, 2015 at 8:17

I don't think these are modifiers. Rather than modification, their semantic function is predication. Digging a hole is predicated of them, and standing over there is predicated of it.

"I saw them digging a hole" is a non-obvious but fairly transparent preposition construction of the same sort that historically gave us the progressive aspect: [ I saw them [PP at [NP [VP digging a hole ] ] ] ], where "digging" is a gerund. The understood subject of the VP is they.

Notice what happens in a construction where "digging a hole" is subject to pronominalization:

At 4pm I saw them digging a hole, and when I passed by later at 6pm, I saw them still at it.

meaning, of course, that I saw them still digging the hole.


All 4 have nonfinite clauses.

(1) I saw them digging a hole. (2) We prefer it standing over there.

(1) and (2) are adjectival clauses because they act on the noun. In (1), who is/are digging? "Them". This word is a noun. In (2), who/ what is standing over there? "It". This word is a noun.

(3)Looking out of the window, Mary saw a car go by. (4)We peeled the apples while waiting for the water to boil.

(3) and (4) are adverbials because they act on the verb (syntax function) - specifically, they act on the time (pragmatic function). In (3), when did Mary see the car whizzed past? The exact moment Mary looked out the window. In (4), when were the apples peeled? The apples were peeled when the water was still boiling.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.