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Are steep and horizontal correctly written as adjectives or should they be adverbs in the following sentence?

Scaling around the trunk leads to a huge branch that expands out the other side starting steep and leveling off horizontal high above the ground.

  • See Do predicative adjuncts modify nouns or verbs? from SE: Linguistics. Short answer is that they 'modify' both the noun and verb; it depends what you mean by modify. Also @KevinH – Alan Carmack Dec 7 '16 at 5:26
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    They can only be adjectives since they ascribe the properties of being "steep" and "horizontal" to the NP "a huge branch" (cf. "a steep/horizontal branch"). Their function is complement (not modifier) of the verbs "starting" and "levelling". Since they are obligatory and refer to a predicand ("a huge branch), they are best called predictative complements. – BillJ Dec 7 '16 at 9:33
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This looks like two adjectives, steep and horizontal, masquerading as adverbs. I believe it should be phrased as 'starting steeply' and 'leveling off horizontally'. They both refer to 'how'. These two words, steep and level follow a verb, therefore they become adverbs. I just checked this at Dictionary.com. Also, I learned English when the subject was rigorously taught.

Adverb: A word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. Origin - late Middle English: from Latin adverbium, from ad- ‘to’ (expressing addition) + verbum ‘word, verb.’.

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    That's too simplistic, and wrong. The day that starts bright ends dark, with no adverbs harmed in its making, for it is the day which is bright and dark. We are not modifying the verb but the subject, which is a noun phrase. These sorts of verbs take “predicate adjectives”, if you care to call them that. – tchrist Dec 7 '16 at 4:27
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Since both words modify verbal phrases, answering the question "how?", they are both adverbs; however, both are typically used as adjectives in their primary sense.

Since the question seems to ask if they are written correctly, I say, "yes," hesitantly. Punctuation should be added for clarity.

It reads quite nicely if written: Scaling around the trunk leads to a huge branch that expands out the other side, starting steep and leveling off, horizontal, high above the ground.

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    Why do you think these are applying to the verbs not to the nouns? – tchrist Dec 7 '16 at 4:35
  • They answer the question "how?" as opposed to modifying the noun, which would logically take place in the noun phrase. If the author intended either to be adjectives, adding commas, would add clarity. – Kevin H Dec 7 '16 at 4:56
  • People can start out happy, and paths can start out steep. Those are adjectives, not adverbs. They are describing their subjects, not their verbs. – tchrist Dec 7 '16 at 5:21
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  • The inverse is also true. "Start out" is a phrasal verb modified by "happy," is it not? Just like to "hop in" in the case of "I hopped in the car right away." Or even, "This conversation started out quite simply." The answer here is even less cut-and-dried. – Kevin H Dec 7 '16 at 5:35
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BillJ wrote in a comment:

They can only be adjectives since they ascribe the properties of being "steep" and "horizontal" to the NP "a huge branch" (cf. "a steep/horizontal branch"). Their function is complement (not modifier) of the verbs "starting" and "levelling". Since they are obligatory and refer to a predicand ("a huge branch), they are best called predicative complements.

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