I've got the following sentence:

'Every now and then a ray of moonlight through the branches above lit a spot of silver blue blood on the fallen leaves.'

It's originally from the Harry Potter book.

Here we have the part 'through the branches above' that cracked up the SVO order.

I don't know how to explain, but it seems quite strange. If I say 'a ray of moonlight shining through the branches above lit a spot of blood', it's fine

but if I don't have an adjective clause it looks weird.

It seems more natural to say 'a ray of moonlight lit a spot of silver blue blood through the branches above'

Simplifying, we could say 'A ray lit a spot through the branches', not 'a ray through the branches lit a spot' A Method comes after.

Here is the question: Could I write sentences such as the last one and what's a grammatically correct way to do it?

Update: I've found an answer.

"I ate steak in pepper sauce"

Ordinary people think that ''in pepper sauce'' is adjectival, whereas I ate steak while sitting in pepper sauce. I couldn't see how ''through the branches'' could modify 'a ray' without adding one more word

''a ray shining through the branches lit a spot''

Without 'shining' there was just one possibility for me, which is to light something through branches.

however, the original Rowling's sentence could be interpreted in both ways. But it is archaic to put an adverb before the verb it modifies. (And this is why I asked the question. It felt weird in terms of an adverbial interpretation)

So...an adverbial version:

Every now and then a ray of moonlight faintly lit a spot of silver blue blood on the fallen leaves.

an adjectival version:

'Every now and then a ray of moonlight shining through the branches above lit a spot of silver blue blood on the fallen leaves.'

  • 1
    Rowling is a billionaire, not a stylist.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 20:57
  • 2
    @Robusto: Have you tried writing a seven-volume series of novels without a single vaguely grammatically questionable sentence? People nitpick on Rowling way too much (probably because she is a billionaire). Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 21:10
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    @Robusto So? Being either of those things has nothing to do with whether you can write entertaining prose. In fact I'd argue the best prose ignores style guidelines frequently. Otherwise, novels would be awfully boring. But I suppose some people are obsessed with following rules, even when they don't actually exist...
    – user91988
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 21:15
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    @PeterShor: That is not the issue, and you know it. Personally, I found her unreadable—and I really, really tried to read her because my son was so into the series. I don't begrudge her her success, but apparently for all her wealth none of it went into an editor who would stand up to her excesses. For fantasy, give me Ursula K. LeGuin any day.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 21:19
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    Ahem. In the spirit of staying on-topic: first off, "a ray through the branches lit a spot" is fine. It's not the usual order but you can use it under poetic license any day. Secondly and more importantly: I believe you've simplified the example to an extent where it has become something else entirely. In the original phrase, "through the branches" modifies ray. A ray of light through the branches. That's a single unit. And then that unit does something. In the usual order. You are trying to reduce it to a construction where "through the branches" modifies lit. And so you run into trouble.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:33

3 Answers 3


I don't understand why you think that Rowling has made some error. The formulation is just like: " A sip of tea from a porcelain cup refreshes the spirits." The phrase "through the branches" is adjectival, distinguishing the ray of moonlight from other rays of moonlight that have not passed through branches. Whether other less wealthy writers would have chosen those words has no bearing on whether the rules of grammar, such as they are, have been broken.


Rowling's version is fine grammatically. Prepositional phrases can serve as adjective phrases as well as adverb phrases, and prepositional phrases modifying verbs can appear before the verb.

You are right that through, leading a prepositional phrase, tends to follow a verb, whether that would be lit or your hypothetical gerundive shining.

However, through, like other prepositional phrases, can also follow a noun. In this case, through may modify moonlight directly. Merriam Webster features a pair of examples:

a highway through the forest

a road through the desert

Here's an example from the 2016 novel Promised to the Crown, where "light" is modified by through her cell window without a clear verb correspondent:

Seeing the dawn light through her cell window proved a disappointment that morning and many afterward.

In a more scientific context, here's a passage about light transmitted through a vacuum without using a verb like "transmitted":

The speed of light through a vacuum is exactly 299,792,458 meters per second, or 670,616,629 mph

In these examples, it is clear that the first noun is somehow moving or being transmitted through the preposition's object. No verb and no rearrangement of the syntax to follow a verb is necessary.

Even if we wanted to consider "through" as an adverbial phrase modifying the verb "lit," moving the phrase "through" to precede the verb occasionally happens in literary use. Samuel Taylor Coleridge affects a lyrical style in Rime of the Ancient Mariner to do just that:

And every tongue thro' utter drouth / Was wither'd at the root

Or John Milton in Samson Agonistes:

If he through frailty err

The expressions sound distinct, and we could discuss further whether Rowling's style entirely works here (she's no poet), but the usage is fine grammatically.

  • 1
    So...If we take the phrase 'Megan put her bird in its cage.' and turn it into 'Megan in its cage put her bird.' it is still correct even after the transformation? Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:16
  • No, it's incorrect, but the primary issue is the use of a pronoun before the thing it refers to. Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:48
  • Otherwise, the placement is grammatically correct, if stylistically distinct and not common in styles of writing that privilege clarity. Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:50
  • Does treating the prepositional phrase as the adjectival phrase really works? It's really important because it changes the meaning. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 1:18
  • It works because this is one of the things prepositional phrases commonly do, as "a ray of moonlight through the branches above" forms a larger noun phrase, and "speed of light through a vacuum" forms a larger noun phrase. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 2:01

The prepositional phrase is adverbial, and it is right where it belongs. Compare:

Every now and then a ray of moonlight faintly lit a spot of silver blue blood on the fallen leaves.


Every now and then a ray of moonlight through the branches above lit a spot of silver blue blood on the fallen leaves. The grammar is the same.

  • Sorry, I don't know how the delete thing works. My deleted comment appears on my screen, maybe not on others'. But since someone upvoted my answer, I guess I should make it available. I would amend it to say that treating the prepositional phrase as adjectival works, too.
    – remarkl
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 0:38
  • So...Faintly is an adverb. We could treat our phrase as an adverb, right? 'a ray of moonlight through the branches above lit a spot' How did ray light a spot? 'Through the branches above.' or 'faintly' But it means that our phrase describes the verb lit. Not a noun 'ray'! That's what I was talking about. Adverbs cannot modify nouns. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 11:11
  • @ThroughTheWonders - Yes, it can be an adjectival phrase, too, modifying "ray," as I said in my comment appearing immediately above yours.
    – remarkl
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 12:41
  • That's the wrong place for an adverbial prepositional phrase (although a perfectly fine place for a solitary adverb). Compare *The blue car down the street drove and The house down the street is blue. The first down the street is adverbial, and unconventionally positioned (although it's acceptable for poetry), while the second is adjectival and positioned correctly. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 14:08
  • @PeterShor I believe you are talking style, not grammar. Some style rules are very powerful with respect to idiomatic speaking and writing, but the placement of adverbial phrases has been grammatically optional at least since lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed. But hark! What light through yon window breaks?
    – remarkl
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 14:13

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