"We should tie the rope to the tree."

The McGraw Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage gives two tests for determining if a PP is adjectival or adverbial, neither of which stands up to much scrutiny (pages 39-41). The 'movement test' for an adverb PP is that if the PP can be moved to a different position in the sentence, it is an adverb PP that modifies the verb.

In "We should tie the rope to the tree", 'to the tree' is absolutely definitely (in normal usage) a modifier to 'tie'. But we couldn't say "To the tree we should tie the rope" or "We should to the tree tie the rope". So the movement test fails here.

The test for an adjective PP is that it, together with the whole noun phrase, can be replaced with a pronoun. In theory, 'the rope to the tree' could be replaced by 'it', but only if you take the sentence to be "We should tie [the rope which runs to the tree] [and then tie that other rope too]." And that is not the way any normal user would understand the sentence. So this test is unreliable too.

Is there any reliable test or tests for whether a PP modifies the noun or the verb, or do we have to rely upon sense?

  • 2
    "To the tree we should tie the rope" is workable, it's just inverted. See the "postman" example here, for instance. (This kind of inversion is typically used to alter the rhythm or scansion of a sentence.) However, while "we should to the tree tie the rope" is understandable, it would not appear in any normal English usage.
    – torek
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 12:41
  • 2
    There's a third alternative: to the tree is a locative complement of the verb designating the goal and ultimate position of the object. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 13:22
  • We should tie to the tree any of these things in the front yard which the windstorm might blow away.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 13:52
  • You can affix to the envelope whatever combination of postage stamps you desire, as long as their face value meets or exceeds the required postage.
    – TimR
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 13:57
  • There are, of course, prepositional phrases that could be either. For example, we can find the treasure on the island. Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 14:41

2 Answers 2


This is not a matter of part-of-speech identification. Step back and take a closer look.

This PP is part of a construction that applies only to a certain type of verb.
Below is a list of the 5 verb classes in category 22 of English Verb Classes and Alternations,
a classic reference work by Beth Levin. Tie is a member of verb class 22.4, on page 162.

22 "Verbs of Combining and Attaching" (pp 159-164)

22.1 Mix verbs
add blend combine commingle concatenate connect cream fuse join link merge mingle mix network pool

22.2 Amalgamate verbs
affiliate alternate amalgamate associate coalesce coincide compare confederate confuse conjoin consolidate contrast correlate criss-cross engage entangle entwine harmonize incorporate integrate interchange interconnect interlace interlink interlock intermingle interrelate intersperse intertwine interweave introduce marry mate muddle oppose pair rhyme team total unify unite wed

22.3 Shake verbs
append attach band baste beat bind bond bundle cluster collate collect fasten fuse gather glom graft group herd jumble lump mass moor package pair roll scramble sew shake shuffle splice stick stir swirl weld whip whisk

22.4 Tape verbs
anchor band belt bolt bracket buckle button cement chain clamp clasp clip epoxy fetter glue gum handcuff harness hinge hitch hook knot lace lash lasso latch leash link lock loop manacle moor muzzle nail padlock paste peg pin plaster rivet rope screw seal shackle skewer solder staple stitch strap string tack tape tether thumbtack tie trammel wire yoke zip

22.5 Cling verbs
adhere cleave cling

Each one of these verb classes has its own special syntactic rules that operate because of the special needs of the meaning. All of these verbs deal with two objects and report various states and activities involving both of them. Naturally there have to be ways of mentioning both objects and in English this will almost always involve prepositions on one or both.

A few properties of Tape verbs, from p. 163 (with tie examples substituted):

Properties: (An asterisk "*" in front of a sentence means the sentence is ungrammatical)

  • (330) Linda tied the box to/on/onto the wagon.

  • (331) *Locative Alternation: (i.e, the Locative Alternation doesn't work here)
    *Linda tied the wagon with the box. (ungrammatical using with, unlike Spray/Paint verbs)

  • (332) *Simple Reciprocal Alternation (transitive)
    *Linda tied the box and the wagon. (doesn't convert to a conjunction)

  • (333) Together Reciprocal Alternation (transitive)
    Linda tied the box and the wagon together.

  • (334) *Causative Alternations
    a. *The box tied to the wagon.
    b. *The box and the wagon tied together.

  • (335) Middle Alternation
    a. Boxes tie easily to that kind of wagon.
    b. Boxes and wagons tie together easily.

  • (336) Resultative Phrase
    Linda tied the box shut.

  • (337) Cognate With Phrase
    *Linda tied the box with tie (cf She taped it with tape)
    Linda tied the box with a plastic tie.

So, does it really matter whether it's adjectival or -verbial? The individual status of a given prepositional phrase is irrelevant if it's not a load-bearing part of a larger structure.

  • Wow! Detailed! I like it. And I like the text you're quoting. I particularly like 'Obligatory Negative Polarity Element-budge'--ha ha, yes, we can't say 'he budged'. I suspect that, again, this steps well outside of a Traditional Grammar type analysis, and probably isn't entirely compatible with it. I think trad grammar is less concerned with meaning than with patterns. I'll take your answer as being "you have to deal with the sense".
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 8:34
  • However--'load-bearing'--aren't there instances where PPs are pretty dispensable? "I was smoking on the verandah"< surely we can drop the PP without problems? It is hardly 'load-bearing'. Unless context makes it the key element--"Where were you when the murder happened?" But then bringing wider elements of meaning in like that would make analysis too complicated to be workable.
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 8:38
  • The preposition itself rarely bears any load; it's just the nail that attaches an NP to the rest of the structure. But since there's so many prepositions to choose from, they can sometimes bear a little load. Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 17:49

I think 'to the tree' is an adverb here. The tests you give are a good start, but are, as you point out, far from definitive.

The Movement Test doesn't seem definitive in this case because the following are grammatically on the fence:

  1. ? To the tree, we should tie the rope. [Iffy...]
  2. ? We should tie to the tree the rope. [Iffy, but not so bad]

The Replace-with-Pronoun Test is also bad in this case, because we can, presumably, replace "the rope to the tree" with the pronoun 'it', as in

  1. We tied it.

Another test for adverbial status might be the possibility of inserting uncontroversial adverbs like 'quickly' before the prepositional phrase, for example:

  1. We should tie the rope quickly to the tree.

If 'to the tree' was really attached to the noun phrase 'the rope', inserting 'quickly' should be blocked, which it is not.

This test is at least somewhat reliable. It predicts, for example, the status of the prepositional phrases in the following:

  1. I kissed the king of England.
  2. *I kissed the king quickly of England. [Cannot insert suggests adjective PP]
  3. I kissed the king in England.
  4. I kissed the king quickly in England. [Can insert suggests adverb PP]
  • I like this answer, and on the surface it seems like a good test. I'm wondering if there are other answers (other possibilities) too.
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 14:38
  • There are definitely other tests, but that's all I was able to write up at the moment. Maybe somebody more versed in syntax will write a more comprehensive answer.
    – DyingIsFun
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 14:40
  • "The book on the top shelf needs to go back tomorrow." "It needs to go back tomorrow." This is how the test is demonstrated in the text in question. But your test seems to work better.
    – Dunsanist
    Commented Jun 12, 2016 at 14:51

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