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Although most apps have some educational aspect, many include characters tied to popular TV and movie characters. Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content online, but can’t search for specific topics, as they would for homework.

What would they do for homework here?

Is it Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content as they would for homework. ([but can't....] is just a sentence inserted there) (Here they would look at pre-screened content for homework.)

Or They can’t search for specific topics, as they would for homework (They would search for homework)?

How to know which one it is? they are both reasonable to me.

Source:The News Tribune

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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Ordinarily, an adverbial adjunct modifies the nearest eligible clause or constituent. An adjunct at the beginning of a sentence looks to its right for the nearest following eligible clause or constituent; in all other cases it looks to its left for the nearest preceding eligible clause or constituent. Parsing proceeds from the ‘bottom up’, from the most subordinate adjunct up to the main clause.

Consider these two sentences:

a. As he had in 1990, when he was 13, John broke his arm. = John broke his arm at age 13 in 1990; at the time we are speaking of, some time after 1990, he broke his arm again.

Here when he was 13 looks to its left for the constituent it modifies: 1990. That makes when he was 13 subordinate to As he had.... Consequently, As he had cannot modify when he was 13; when it looks to its right for the constituent it modifies it skips when he was 13 and modifies the main clause, John broke his arm.

b. When he was 13, John broke his arm, as he had in 1990. = At the time we are speaking of, when John was 13, he broke his arm; he had previously broken his arm in 1990, at a younger age.

Here when he was 13 looks to its right for the constituent it modifies: John broke his arm. As he had... looks to its left: the same clause, John broke his arm.

In your example, as they would for homework falls at the end of the sentence, so it looks to its left, where the nearest eligible clause is [they] can't search for specific topics.

Note, however, that “eligibility” is not only a matter of syntax; it is governed by semantics, too. A careless writer might produce this:

While heading this company, as he had as a child, John often allowed his hot temper to overcome his judgment.

Despite the syntactical 'rules', no one would think that as he had as a child modifies While heading this company. Obviously what is meant is:

While heading this company, John often allowed his hot temper to overcome his judgment, as he had as a child.

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It means that they would need to search for specific topics to do their homework, which can't be done with the pre-screened content mentioned. Something like:

Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content online, but can’t search for specific topics, as they would need to do for their homework.

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I will risk doing something I normally don't--answering a question that I'm not quite sure that I know the answer, but I think it might be useful for the OP and other learners, so please be gentle with me a little this time.

(This doesn't mean that I think other answers are wrong. What I really want to do is to simplify the problem, and make the reading obvious.)


Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content online, but can’t search for specific topics, as they would for homework.

Should we read it as "Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content online, as they would for homework.", and take "but can’t search for specific topics" as something we can omit?

I think not. Why? Because, usually, we don't insert our 'after thoughts' in front of a conjunction.

Why so? Because it will confuse the reader (or the listener).

Your case is different from, say, "I like Jane--I told you before, right?--as much as John." (Because in this example, as is not a conjunction.)

So, how should we understand a sentence with multiple conjunctions?

My answer is we should read it sequentially; and make sense of the sentence by using the nearest part possible. This is essentially the same thing StoneyB wrote about. It is also exactly what we do when we solve which pronouns refer to which nouns1. Omissions (or ellipses) also work this way. Most of the times, it refers back, and the rest of the times, it refers forward.

1) For example, "We keep the ice-cream machine in the spare room. This is mainly used by children, incidentally."
"Now what do you think about this? I thought I'd get a job in Spain for six months, and then ..."
(Examples were taken from Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, entry 590.)


To demonstrate how to read your example sentence, here is how I read it:

Children can look at a variety of pre-screened content online,
but [children] can’t search for specific topics,
as they would [search for specific topics] for homework.

The parts in brackets [...] were inserted to make the meanings clear.

This demonstrates two things:

  • I read it sequentially, and
  • I solved each missing part by using the nearest part possible.
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I do not entirely agree with StoneyB's answer that "an adverbial clause normally modifies the nearest eligible clause or constituent." At least, this is not always true in colloquial speech (which StoneyB points out but perhaps does not give enough emphasis).

What is true is that speakers will often phrase their statements in such a way as to make the reference very clear, or otherwise pragmatically obvious. In this example, it is pragmatically obvious (or if not obvious, then more reasonable) that students do not view pre-screened content when doing homework, and instead the comparison to homework involves the "search for specific topics" part.

But I view this example as technically (syntactically) ambiguous and a bit sloppy in its writing. It's meaning is clear, but the qualifier could be a little more clear.

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