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Does an adjunct always modify the noun or can it modify the verb, too?

For example:

He talked about me [in a hateful way].

I don't think that saying "in a hateful way" modifies him would be true.

Also, when there are two adjuncts:

He talked about me [in a hateful way] {on the phone}.

I think that both "in a hateful way" and "on the phone" modify talk, not him or hateful way ("hateful way on the phone," as a noun phrase, does not make sense). So do these adjuncts modify the verb, or the entire clause? Also, is there any limitation to using consecutive adjuncts?

He talked about me in a hateful way on the phone in the office without hesitation.

Would you interpret this sentence as "talking in a hateful way and talking on the phone and talking in the office and talking without hesitation" or as "talking in a hateful way which was on the phone that was in the office which was without hesitation"?

  • These are adverbial phrases (prepositional phrases in this case), and they can't modify nouns. As to your two interpretations, I don't see any difference. Adverbial phrases (dunno how you define "adjunct" -- it's a term with a lot of possible meanings, so I don't use it) can modify verbs or verb phrases (the difference is often indistinguishable) or entire clauses. – John Lawler Sep 23 '15 at 0:55
  • How are my two interpretations not different? One with the repeated which was does not make much sense to me. Can you explain? – isitright Sep 23 '15 at 0:57
  • If it doesn't make sense, why give it as an interpretation? It's the same set of propositions presented as either a complex or a compound sentence. – John Lawler Sep 23 '15 at 1:01
  • ell.stackexchange.com/questions/68590/… It's where my questions come from. The person that answered said that sentences like the one above should be interpreted as using lots of "which was". – isitright Sep 23 '15 at 1:03
  • "We went in the back door to our rooms without a word." Also, people said that it's used as one adverbial phrase "in the back door to our rooms without a word" , not two adverbial phrases, "in the back door" and "to our room". And I don't understand it. Why is it only one adverbial phrase? – isitright Sep 23 '15 at 1:11
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In your example,

He talked about me in a hateful way.

"in a hateful way" modifies the verb phrase "talked about me", and the result of the modification is a verb phrase "talked about me in a hurtful way". All modifiers are like this -- they are added to a phrase of some certain syntactic type, and give as result another phrase of that same type, but with a modified meaning.

We can verify that both "talked about me" in the example and "talked about me in a hateful way" are verb phrases, by using the do-so test proposed by Lakoff and Ross (Criterion for verb phrase constituency). "Do so" is an anaphoric replacement for a verb phrase, and we have:

He talked about me, and then she did so. ("did so" = "talked about me")
He talked about me in a hateful way, and then she did so in a loving way. ("did so" = "talked about me")
He talked about me in a hateful way, and then she did so. ("did so" = "talked about me in a hateful way")

This follows the account of modification in McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English.

So "in a hateful way" is not an adjunct, and it modifies neither a verb or a noun, but rather a verb phrase.

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Adjuncts, which are a very broad set of things, can modify any part of speech. I've never heard that adjuncts "always" modify nouns.

Regarding "limitation": You aren't limited by any rule that says "you can only use X number of consecutive adjuncts", but you're limited by practicality. Once you start adding so many, obviously it becomes irritating for the reader to get through. The meaning isn't unclear, exactly, but it's not a fun sentence to read.

Those interpretations aren't different in meaning. The second one is a sillier way of saying it, of course, but the conclusions are the same.

  • ell.stackexchange.com/questions/68590/… It's where my questions come from. The person that answered said that sentences like the one above should be interpreted as using lots of "which was". It didn't make much sense to me and got me confused about using set of prepositional phrases. – isitright Sep 23 '15 at 1:07

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