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In an MIT textbook from 2007 the author, Robert G. Gallager, writes in the preface:

My original purpose was to write an undergraduate text on digital communication, but experience teaching this material over a number of years convinced me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles, including both what is possible and what is not possible, without losing most undergraduates.

Does experience here act as a noun adjunct for teaching (like chicken in chicken soup)? But then if we analyze it from this standpoint, that doesn't make much sense: What kind of teaching are we talking about? experience teaching. Does this construction make sense? What grammatical role does experience play here?

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    Isn't experience teaching just a contraction of my experience of teaching? – KillingTime Feb 9 '20 at 18:26
  • I think you're right, this most probably means experience in/of teaching. But then is this move grammatical? I mean it is intelligible, but would it be considered ungrammatical? – Norbert Feb 9 '20 at 18:28
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    "Teaching" modifies "experience", not the other way around. – Hot Licks Feb 9 '20 at 18:29
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    @Norbert - It's English. "Grammatical" is simply whatever the majority of "experts" agree to. – Hot Licks Feb 9 '20 at 18:30
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    @HotLicks “grammatical” is defined by what speakers of a language agree is proper - not what an arbitrary board of so-called “experts” believes is “correct.” – Ethan Bierlein Feb 10 '20 at 14:55
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My original purpose was to write an undergraduate text on digital communication, but experience teaching this material over a number of years convinced me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles, including both what is possible and what is not possible, without losing most undergraduates.

There is no way for "experience" to be a noun adjunct in this sentence, because "teaching" is not a noun. "Teaching" is a verb here, as shown by the fact that "teaching" takes a direct object as complement: the noun phrase "this material." In general, nouns take prepositional phrases rather than noun phrases as their complements: an example where the form "teaching" is used as a noun would be "the teaching of this material", which cannot be replaced with *"the teaching this material."

"Teaching this material over a number of years" is a non-finite clause. The clause it is contained in has the basic structure "experience [...] convinced me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles." The noun experience is the head of the noun phrase that is the subject of the clause with verb convinced.

I'm not sure what grammatical structure is used to put the non-finite clause (the one with the verb teaching) inside of the larger finite clause (the one with the verb convinced).

If, as suggested in the comments, the non-finite clause is a modifier of the preceding nominal "experience," that would give the structure

[experience [teaching this material over a number of years]] convinced me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles

You raised the objection in the comments that this would involve a modifier coming after what it modifies. But that isn't a valid objection, because that isn't actually an unusual kind of word order in English. Some modifiers come before what they modify (for example, single-word adjectives usually precede the modified nominal), but many kinds of multi-word modifiers are regularly placed at the end rather than the beginning of a phrase in English. For example, relative clauses and prepositional phrases are standardly placed at the end of noun phrases: we say "a tree that grows very large" (not *"a that grows very large tree") and "a school in my city."

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  • In line with other answers, supporting evidence for the claim should be shown. Tinfoil Hat has posited conflicting analyses. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '20 at 19:55
  • "An in my city school" becomes grammatical as "an in-my-city school." – Matt Samuel Feb 11 '20 at 0:38
  • @EdwinAshworth: not sure why conflict in Tinfoil Hat's answer is relevant to mine (which does include supporting evidence: I explained how the presence of a direct object is evidence for "teaching" being a verb). I don't think my answer contradicts anything in Tinfoil Hat's answer. I said here that I don't know how the internal non-finite clause is contained inside the surrounding finite clause; but whether there is a "gerund phrase", "adverb clause," or "prepositional phrase" involved doesn't change the fact that "teaching" is a verb taking the direct object "this material". – herisson Feb 11 '20 at 4:58
  • To quote Sven Yargs, << '... Please consider strengthening your answer by citing some independent authority that draws the same general conclusion that you do with regard to this usage. Thanks! ' >> Note that an unsupported answer elsewhere on ELU, or a dictionary mispronouncing on modern grammar, to which you have linked since the first comment, is hardly authoritative. With the rep you've got I think a lot more could be expected. You know the site guidelines. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 11 '20 at 11:55
  • Great analysis herrison! With only slight tweaks in wording, we can completely change the grammatical relation between the noun "experience" and the -ing clause : My original purpose was to write an undergraduate text on digital communication, but years of experience teaching me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles, including both what is possible and what is not possible, without losing most undergraduates - I gave up the idea. – user97589 Feb 11 '20 at 20:08
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"...but experience, (while) teaching this over a number of years, convinced me..."

"Teaching" is merely part of a subordinate adjectival clause, qualifying "experience".

The "while" has been elided but can easily be put back in if it makes you more comfortable.

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  • I'm not familiar with the term "adjectival cause", and I couldn't find it in any of the grammars and syntax textbooks that I could lay my hands on. A web search was also rather unsuccessful. It seems that relative clauses are sometimes called "adjective clauses" – is that what you're referring to here? Or is an adjectival clause something different? – Schmuddi Feb 10 '20 at 14:15
  • In line with other answers, supporting evidence for the claim should be shown. Tinfoil Hat has posited conflicting analyses. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '20 at 19:54
  • @Schmuddi I'm a native English speaker who learned my grammar at school over sixty years ago. How the modern linguistics profession names clauses etc is a mystery to me. However, what I call an "adjectival clause" is a clause acting as an adjective, in qualification of a noun. – WS2 Feb 11 '20 at 9:23
  • @Schmuddi Yes, just thinking of that again, it is difficult to think of an adjectival clause which isn't a relative clause, and vice versa. – WS2 Feb 11 '20 at 19:13
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... but (experience (teaching this material) over a number of years) convinced me that ...

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  • You have too many pairs of brackets. Remove the words in the outer parentheses and the sentence makes no grammatical sense. – WS2 Feb 11 '20 at 9:49
  • @ws2 - They're not denoting "parentheticals", they're grouping together clauses. – Hot Licks Feb 11 '20 at 13:26
  • I don't quite see how "experience" is part of a clause. It is the subject of the main verb - "convinced". – WS2 Feb 11 '20 at 19:08
  • @WS2 - Excuse me -- "phrase". – Hot Licks Feb 11 '20 at 19:36
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Experience is just a noun here. Insert my in front of it to get a better read:

. . . but my experience teaching this material convinced me . . .

Teaching this material over a number of years is a gerund phrase restrictive appositive for the noun experience. Experience = teaching.

You can look at it like this:

. . . but experience teaching this material convinced me that I could not write . . .

. . . but experience convinced me that I could not write . . .

. . . but teaching this material convinced me that I could not write . . .

. . . but my uncle Bob convinced me that I could not write.

. . . but my uncle convinced me that I could not write.

. . . but Bob convinced me that I could not write.

If you don't like the appositive analysis, you can consider a couple of others . . .


Here's one: Teaching this material over a number of years is a reduced adverb clause functioning as an adverb. It's reduced from:

. . . but experience while I was teaching this material convinced me that I could not write . . .

to:

. . . but experience teaching this material convinced me that I could not write . . .


Here's another: Teaching this material over a number of years is a prepositional phrase (with an elliptical preposition) functioning as an adjective:

. . . but experience with teaching this material convinced me that I could not write . . .


Those two don't sit well with me, though.

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    We don't know if you're making up analyses on the hoof, or are actually quoting recognised authorities. (There is one published and well-known grammarian who is gladly received on the site who is allowed to self-authenticate ... though he usually cites papers that he or others have had published). – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '20 at 13:01
  • @EdwinAshworth: I can certainly add links to authoritative definitions of gerund phrase, appositive, restrictive, etc.—if that's what your looking for. But analyzing something that functions as a noun (gerund phrase), abuts another noun and renames that noun (appositive), and eschews commas (restrictive) as a restrictive appositive is hardly hoofing it. Are you looking for authoritative examples of that structure? Also, let me know the preferred expert grammar sources here. I know CGEL is popular here, and I have it, but I am more of a traditionalist. – Tinfoil Hat Feb 10 '20 at 18:06
  • Tradition on ELU is that authoritative links be added, so you should fit in fine. We're encouraged to check at the Help Center, which contains site recommendations like this (also, links to valued resources). But just listing conflicting analyses without citing sources is nearly as bad as giving one analysis without support and expecting people to take it as gospel. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '20 at 19:53
  • @EdwinAshworth so it’s possible to have more than 1 analysis? I wonder what your problem is with my answer here? Though I suspect you didn’t down vote it. – aesking Feb 11 '20 at 2:54
  • Preferred grammar sources are ones that support claims that are made, analyses that are offered. If things are too obvious to need supporting references on ELU, they're too obvious to say on ELU. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 11 '20 at 11:43
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I will refer to the point herrison raised in his post regarding the interpretation of the ing clause in the original sentence:

My original purpose was to write an undergraduate text on digital communication, but experience teaching this material over a number of years convinced me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles, including both what is possible and what is not possible, without losing most undergraduates.

This is what herrison said in his post:

Some modifiers come before what they modify (for example, single-word adjectives usually precede the modified nominal), but many kinds of multi-word modifiers are regularly placed at the end rather than the beginning of a phrase in English.

This is key for understanding the ing clause function in the original sentence. The clause "teaching this material over a number of years" is way too heavy to be pre-modifying the noun referent. This reflects the general constraint placed on noun modification in English - noun pre-modifiers cannot (normally) be post-modified (or complemented) themselves. The authors of CGEL recognize a verb phrase as a form intermediate between a verb and clause. So, verb phrases can pre-modify noun, but clauses (normally) cannot. In this example, the noun phrase headed by "experience" and modified by an -ing clause is equivalent to "teaching experience". The ing clause modifier is pushed behind the noun it modifies simply because it is too heavy. Other than that, the phrase can basically be reduced to "teaching experience". It is what we are talking about here.

This is important to notice because a noun and an -ing verb can stand in a quite different relation from this. So, if we rephrased the sentence a bit we could say like:

My original purpose was to write an undergraduate text on digital communication, but with teaching experience approaching ten years now, I am convinced that I could not write an honest exposition of principles, including both what is possible and what is not possible, without losing most undergraduates.

The ing clause "approaching ten years" modifies the noun "experience" in a different way from the participial clause in the original sentence. The grammar is quite different and so is the interpretation. This -ing clause is not parallel to what would be the pre-modifying counterpart - "approaching experience". This use of ing clauses is similar to that of relative clauses. The natural position of this clause is after the noun antecedent.

Or, to use another possible rephrasing of the sentence:

My original purpose was to write an undergraduate text on digital communication, but I gave up the idea, years of experience teaching me that I could not write an honest exposition of principles, including both what is possible and what is not possible, without losing most undergraduates .

This is yet another different relation between the head noun and the ing verb. The phrase "(years of )experience" is interpreted as the subject of the following verb "teaching". Unlike the previous two participial clauses, this one is not understood as a dependent within an NP. The whole thing "years of experience teaching me that.." is loosely attached to the rest of the sentence structure.

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  • Your last rephrased sentence led me down a garden path which hit a brick wall at the clause after the dash. It seems to me that it should either be years of experience taught me...so I gave up the idea or years of experience having taught me...I gave up the idea. – Shoe Feb 12 '20 at 8:41
  • You can put the "I gave up the idea" before the ing clause . .but I gave up the idea, years of experience teaching me that.... – user97589 Feb 12 '20 at 8:43
  • Ok, that sounds much better, but I still slightly prefer having taught me. – Shoe Feb 12 '20 at 8:44
  • I tried to make a parallel between the constructions, without significantly changing the original interpretation. The original sentence is a bit verbose and awkward and the rephrases are admittedly even more so. – user97589 Feb 12 '20 at 8:48
  • I agree that neither the original sentence nor any of the suggested rephrasings make it particularly easy for the reader. – Shoe Feb 12 '20 at 9:02

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