Take this fragment for example:

The snow had come from the north, in the mist, driven by the night wind, smelling of the sea.

It is from John Le Carré's The Looking Glass War. I've seen writers do this, a lot, and I am trying to understand

a) What is this defined as grammatically, and b) What are the rules for it?

e.g. above, I see 4 free modifiers. Two prepositional phrases, and two participial phrases. Can we do this indefinitely with however many phrases/clauses we want? Or are there specific rules?

Thank you.

  • I eschew criticizing my favourite writer. Try reading it aloud; it's very poetic.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 16:37
  • It's not criticism, but rather admiration. I want to base my style on his, I am just not sure of the rules to follow :( Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 18:39
  • There are no rules, but it works. I am not going to pick apart the grammar because it's fine.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:46
  • I want to be able to use this when I write, this style, hence why I am asking :) Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 20:14
  • Look at this parse: The snow had come from the north, in the mist, driven by the night wind. You can always append an ing: He drove down the street proudly, smiling as he went.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 21:32

1 Answer 1


The first preposition phrase, from the north, is actually not a modifier; it's a complement. We know that because that phrase is licensed by come.

The rest are indeed optional supplements; and yes, you can do that indefinitely as far as grammar is concerned. English sentences can in principle be arbitrarily long and complex — precisely because of stuff like subordination, coordination and supplementation.

Of course, in practice you probably want your sentences to be comprehensible and digestible. This sentence works fine; three supplements are enough to convey a certain mood, but it's not too many, so the reader will not get lost in the wilderness. If you look up the context, you'll find that the whole paragraph is driven by supplements and asyndetic coordinations:

It had come from the north, in the mist, driven by the night wind, smelling of the sea. There it would stay all Winter, threadbare on the gray earth, an icy, sharp dust.... The changing mist, like the smoke of war, would hang over it, swallow up now a hangar, now the radar hut, now the machines; release them piece by piece, drained of color, black carrion on a white desert.

It's a specific stylistic choice. The same thing could have been depicted very differently — say, with no supplements at all. It all comes down to style — not grammar.

  • Can you explain what 'selected by the verb, come' means, Christopher. The prepositional phrase 'from the north' can certainly be dropped to leave a grammatical sentence. Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 18:28
  • Thank you. Do you have a site or a book recommendation for me to better read on coordination and supplementation? Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 18:40
  • @EdwinAshworth That's true, because complements can be optional. But unlike modifiers, they need to be licensed by something. So another test is to see whether it works grammatically with other verbs. Perhaps I should change "selected" to "licensed". Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:16
  • @EvangelosAktoudianakis On the grammar level, both are dealt with in this textbook: A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:21
  • Thank you very much! Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 21:33

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