Consider this sentence, please:

Seeing the police, the thief ran away.

In tjis sentence, the first part is a non-finite dependent clause and the second part is a finite independent clause.

Now, some say that the first part is adjectivally modifying the other part, whereas others say it's adverbially modifying the second part. What I think is that the first part is modifying the second part both adjectivally and adverbially at the same time.

Adjectival modification: Q: who saw the police? A: the thief.

Adverbial modification : Q: when did he run? A: after seeing the police. Or Q: why did he run? A: because he saw the police.

My question is: Can a non-finite dependent clause simultaneously perform two different actions on the same clause?

  • 'The thief seeing the police ran away' is obviously using the present participial phrase as a defining reduced relative clause (if one allows the reducing analysis – but adjectival, modifying the noun in an identifying way, in any case), compare 'The younger thief ran away'. But with 'Seeing the police, the thief ran away', the present participial phrase essentially modifies the whole main clause. 'The thief ran away because/when he saw the police.' This is not an adjectival function; it often gets lumped in the adverbial dustbin. Feb 23, 2020 at 13:47

1 Answer 1


In "Seeing the police, the thief ran away", Seeing the police is a free modifier. It acts adverbially on the whole clause "the thief ran away." See http://writingwithaesop.blogspot.com/2011/01/commas-and-free-modifiers.html

  • What do you think of this: "He sat at his computer writing grammar exercises?" Do you think a comma is needed after 'computer?' I don't think so. The sentence as it stands seems fine to me.
    – Mr. X
    Feb 23, 2020 at 14:58

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