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I came across a sentence like this:

The president of the World Bank says he has a passion for China, which he remembers starting as early as his childhood.

I am not sure how to understand the indefinite relative clause here. Does it mean "he remembers the passion starting as early as his childhood"? Then what is this use of starting here? Is it a participle?

And we say "remember somebody doing something", but I don't think that is the usage here in the clause. How can I understand the part of the sentence with the “passion starting as ... as...”?

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No, it's a gerund.

In the example

"The president of the World Bank says he has a passion for China, which
he remembers starting as early as his childhood."

The NP object of "remembers" is "(it = which) starting as early as his childhood", and this is a nominalization of the sentence "it (the passion) started as early as his childhood". The -ing form of a verb in a nominalized sentence is called a "gerund", as I understand the terminology.

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  • I agree that it’s a gerund here, since the VP is being used where an NP is expected for the complement of remembers. That said, this perennial obsession with gerund–participles feels as pointless as figuring out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. All that matters is that it’s a VP. – tchrist Nov 30 '16 at 15:50
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The president of the World Bank says he has a passion for China, which he remembers starting as early as his childhood.

The relative clause is "which he remembers ___ starting as early as his childhood", where gap represents the NP antecedent "a passion for China". "Remember" is a catenative verb, so this is a complex catenative construction in which the intervening NP "his passion for China" is object of “remember” and the gerund-participle clause "starting as early as his childhood" is catenative complement of “remember”. "Starting" is a gerund-participial verb-form; it heads the catenative complement clause. The preposition phrase "as early as his childhood" is a temporal adjunct modifying the VP.

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Yes, starting is a present participle.

The construction here is really “remember someone or something doing something. The part in bold is called the objective participial construction, and in your example the “someone or something” part is represented as which, which introduces the clause with the construction.

Your example fits well into the rules I gave a link to, namely point 3, because remember is a verb of mental activity and starting really represents a process.

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    A participle has the same functions as an adjective, either modifying a noun ("the sleeping child") or predicating ("the child is sleeping"). – Greg Lee Nov 30 '16 at 4:51
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    Nope. "The passion for China was starting in his childhood" is not fully grammatical, and that is not what is meant here. Gerunds are not nouns, they're verbs; that's why they don't take articles. The "-ing" here is part of the ACC+ing complementizer, which converts a sentence to a NP. It's a nominalization construction, as I said in my answer. – Greg Lee Nov 30 '16 at 5:45
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    @GregLee - I didn't say gerunds are nouns, I said they behave like nouns: they can take possesive pronouns and nouns in the possessive form (with 's) which express their logical subjects (e.g. his drawing the picture, the boy's drawing the picture - italicized are gerunds). In the OP example there's nothing possessive, and if we break that compound sentence into 2 simple ones, we'll get "The president of the World Bank says he has a passion for China. He remembers it starting as early as his childhood." It, but not the possessive its which would signal that a gerund is following. – Yellow Sky Nov 30 '16 at 5:59
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    I can see the plausibility of connecting the 's that is attached to the subject of some nominalized sentences with the determiner of some NPs. Nonetheless, this is an incorrect analysis. The way complementizers work in English was clarified back in the '60s, in the early days of TG. The complementizers ACC-ing, POSS-ing, for-to all work basically the same way -- the subject of an S is modified by the first part of the complementizer, ACC, POSS, for, and the verb phrase is modified by the second part, "-ing" or "to". The 's looks like the determiner of a NP, but it's not. The (cont.) ... – Greg Lee Nov 30 '16 at 9:34
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    I agree the answer is wrong, but not for the reasons you say. The clause "he remembers ___ starting as early as his childhood" is a complex catenative construction. “Gap” represents the intervening NP "a passion for China" (i.e. the antecedent of "which") which is object of "remembers". The embedded gerund-participial clause "starting as early as his childhood" is not part of the object, but a separate catenative complement of "remember". The expression “his passion for China starting …” is not a constituent, but a sequence of direct object + complement. – BillJ Dec 1 '16 at 9:32
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No, this is not a participle in that sentence. That’s because it’s doing the job of a substantive — and not the job of a modifier.

It’s a gerund–participle phrase that serves as the object of the verb remember:

  • I remember [the early start].
  • [The early start] is what I remember.
  • I remember [starting early].
  • [Starting early] is what I remember.

Since those phrases in brackets are all noun phrases — variously subjects and objects — the gerund-participle verb there in was historically referred to as a gerund not a participle in the old-school, legacy analysis.

That’s because the English gerund is a term they invented for the head of a verb phrase which is itself in a substantive position. That is, it’s a verb phrase that does the job of a a noun phrase, not that of an adjective or adverb phrase. Since it is doing the job of a noun phrase, it cannot be a participle.

To the extent that that matters at all. I wouldn’t get too concerned about it.

You’re going to get a lot further looking at the syntactic constituents of a sentence than you will get just by looking at the parts of speech of individual words. Indeed you cannot determine the part of speech of a standalone word in isolation, since it’s its syntactic context that allows it to be assigned a part of speech in the first place.

Here’s your original sentence:

The president of the World Bank says he has a passion for China, which he remembers starting as early as his childhood.

Here’s how I would parse its constituents, with line numbers provided to make it easier to reference in the material following the diagram:

  1 (S (NP (NP The president)
  2        (PP of
  3            (NP the World Bank)))
  4    (VP says
  5        (SBAR (S (NP he)
  6                 (VP has
  7                     (NP a passion)
  8                     (PP for
  9                         (NP (NP China)))
 10                     ,   
 11                     (SBAR (WHNP which)
 12                           (S (NP he)
 13                              (VP remembers
 14                                  (VP starting
 15                                      (ADVP as early)
 16                                      as
 17                                      (NP his childhood))))
 18                           .))))))    

The SBAR (subordinate clause) constituent at 11 attaches to the NP (noun phrase) at 7, “a passion for China”. It does not attach to the NP at 9, “China”.

The SBAR is a tensed clause with its own subject (the NP at 12 “he”), tensed verb (the VP at 13 “remembers”) and complement to that verb (the VP at 14 “starting”). It’s the ”the starting of his” passion that he’s remembering, not the passion. Starting is the head.

Here’s a simpler sentence:

He remember his passion starting early.

Its constituents are:

  1 (S (NP He)
  2    (VP remembers
  3        (NP (NP his passion)
  4            (VP starting
  5                (ADVP early))))
  6    .)          

There now it’s his passion that he is remembering.

In contrast, for this sentence:

He remembers starting his passion early.

You instead get this:

  1 (S (NP He)
  2    (VP remembers
  3        (VP starting
  4            (NP his passion)
  5            (ADVP early)))
  6    .)      

In which like the original sentence, he is remembering starting. The object complement of the verb remember is the VP “starting his passion early”

Now, if you’re dearly committed to parts of speech, here you have some standard part-of-speech tags applied to individual words:

  1 (ROOT
  2   (S
  3     (NP
  4       (NP (DT The) (NN president))
  5       (PP (IN of)
  6         (NP (DT the) (NNP World) (NNP Bank))))
  7     (VP (VBZ says)
  8       (SBAR
  9         (S
 10           (NP (PRP he))
 11           (VP (VBZ has)
 12             (NP
 13               (NP (DT a) (NN passion))
 14               (PP (IN for)
 15                 (NP
 16                   (NP (NNP China)))
 17                 (, ,) 
 18                 (SBAR
 19                   (WHNP (WDT which))
 20                   (S
 21                     (NP (PRP he))
 22                     (VP (VBZ remembers)
 23                       (S
 24                         (VP (VBG starting)
 25                           (ADVP (RB as) (RB early))
 26                           (PP (IN as)
 27                             (NP (PRP$ his) (NN childhood)))))))))))))))
 28     (. .))                  

Yes, that’s harder to read because of all the labels for parts of speech, which can get in the way of paying attention to the crucial constituents if you aren’t used to it. Remember: it’s constituents that matter for grammatical syntax.

The part-of-speech tag used here for starting is VBG, which means it is an “-inG VerB”. These happen when the VPs they head get used as NPs or ADJPs (noun phrases or adjective phrases). They can also be used as sentence adverbials, especially in the initial position.

All you need to know here is that a VBG heads a VP; what that VP then attaches to doesn’t change that it’s a VBG. The VP that the VBG participates in takes regular verbal accouterments of adverbs, adverbial phrases, and verbal arguments (here read complements or objects).

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  • Isn't parsing fun. I think there should be a NP node sister to "remember", showing that it is used with a following direct object. – Greg Lee Nov 30 '16 at 16:41
  • @GregLee I agree completely. You're welcome to edit. :) – tchrist Dec 1 '16 at 3:24

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