Someone mentioned that "with children's books and DVDs equally second at 20% each" in the following sentence from another question is a verbless adverbial clause.

In 2005, fiction made up the largest proportion of items borrowed at 35% with children's books and DVDs equally second at 20% each.

Actually, I would like to ask if it is or it is not qualified as a verbless adverbial clause there, but I don't want to make that question lose its focus. (If you can clear that point here too, I will be grateful. To me, it looks like one.)

So I searched for the definition of verbless adverbial clause, and this link at About.com came up. I was surprised to see these examples there,

The following sentences contain further examples of verbless clauses (italicized):
(38) He considered the girl a good student.
(39) Whenever in trouble, Bill rang his girl-friend.
(40) He married her when a student at Harvard.

I've no problems with other examples but (40). The (40) sounds very odd. It was mentioned that the examples were taken from (Herman Wekker and Liliane M. V. Haegeman, A Modern Course in English Syntax. Taylor & Francis, 1985), and I could find its PDF at the Internet Archive, so I can confirm that the example (40) has no misspelling nor omissions.

Is the sentence "He married her when a student at Harvard," grammatically correct, according to today's English grammar?

  • 1
    There's absolutely nothing wrong with that use of when, but I tend to use while. In informal contexts, I slip into when all of the time, and I often find myself correcting it. But there is no real need to do so other than speaker's preference. When and while are both temporal, and both mean during or at that time. While has additional meanings, but they're the same here. Dec 5, 2013 at 17:52
  • @JohnQPublic From a non-native speaker point of view (and I believe that many other non-native speakers will agree with me), the choice between when/while is not as odd-looking as the missing of "he was" (or "she was?") in this example. However, according to J.R.'s answer and your comment, it appears to me that this omission is actually perfectly normal for native speakers. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:00
  • LOL I was writing up an explanation while (conjunction) you were choosing. It's just elision. See my answer below if you're still unsure. Dec 5, 2013 at 18:12
  • 1
    I should note that you're not required to elide the extra he was in that sentence. Although you're free to include it for effect, it is, in essence redundant, which is why most native speakers would exclude it. Make sense? Dec 5, 2013 at 18:17
  • @JohnQPublic Thank you very much. Though it's not a verbless adverbial clause, it's still a verbless clause, where the elision is "he was", am I correct? (Note that "the girl a good student" makes perfect sense to me, but I will need a while before "when a student at Harvard" sinks in.) Dec 5, 2013 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


I would probably use while instead of when:

He married her while a student at Harvard.

Moreover, the sentence has some built-in ambiguity – did the wedding take place when he was a student at Harvard, or while she was studying there? There's room for interpretation either way, although additional context could render that point moot.

Casting those reservations aside, however, and getting back to your original question: I can find no grammatical errors in the original that you quoted. That said, the sentence does seem a bit concise, and I wouldn't really expect to hear it in conversation. Grammatically, it has the feel of newspaper headline; I think that:

"He married her while he was a student at Harvard."

would be something my friends would be more likely to say.

  • +1 you took the words right out of my mouth, which is no small feat. I think that when is grammatical, but it just sounds better as while. I would disagree about the ambiguity in the first example however. Because this is active voice, and because he is the subject and is thus taking the action, the complement can only refer to the subject in (i.e. in my mind at least). Dec 5, 2013 at 17:48
  • @J.R. while is better because there was an extent of time during which he was a student, and he married at some point in that time: the word while more specifically indicates this sense. When indicates it too, but it also indicates when short events coincide. "He married her {when | *while} he moved out East." When both "when" and "while" are possible and have the same interpretation, "while" is tighter, in some sense.
    – Kaz
    Dec 6, 2013 at 1:35
  • @J.R. I don't seem to perceive that there is much room for the "she-student" interpretation so much so that sentences of this pattern which force me to take the interpretation semantically bother my ear. Does the choice of "while" versus "when" influence your perception of the existence of an ambiguity, or would you say it is independent of that choice?
    – Kaz
    Dec 6, 2013 at 1:38
  • @Kaz I believe the difference in connotation between when and while is much less significant than we might think. The four definitions I linked in my answer are nearly verbatim (i.e. where they are the same parts of speech). The bizarre thing is that, while I agree with both you and J.R., M-W does not agree with us. It's a distinction so fine that I find myself unable to define the difference. At the end of the day though, I don't think there's any real problem with substituting one for the other when they are same part of speech. The other definitions of while are more problematic. Dec 6, 2013 at 5:03
  • @JohnQ - Just because two words can mean the same thing doesn't mean both will sound as natural in a certain context. I recommended while because it sounds more natural, not because when is wrong. It's not unlike I met my son at the lobby – sure, I CAN say that (no arguments from the dictionary), but I would probably use in there instead: I met my son in the lobby.
    – J.R.
    Dec 6, 2013 at 9:59

To be honest, I know that while when can be an adverb, it's actually used as a conjunction in number 40 (with a touch of elision to boot).

When, in this case, means during the time at/through which. It's actually two independent clauses, with one elided, and when joining them.

He married her when he was at Harvard.

He married her. When he was at Harvard, he married her.

I suspect that many native speaker's prefer while, but in this usage while is still a conjunction joining independent clauses. The only difference between while and when is that while is never an adverb (it can be a noun, a verb, preposition or conjunction, but not an adverb).

He married her while he was a student at Harvard.

He married her. While he was a student at Harvard, he married her.

Because these words are semantically related, and because they're both conjunctions here, they are interchangeable.

Native speakers are inclined to omit the extra he was because it's redundant. The agent of action (subject) and the recipient of the action (direct object) are abundantly clear, so we can fill in the blanks, so to speak.

I disagree, however, that it's a verbless adverbial clause.


He married her when a student at Harvard.

This can be understood as just another case of elision.


He married her when he was a student at Harvard. ["he was" is removable.]

Interestingly, this interpretation wouldn't be made.

* He married her when she was a student at Harvard.

Though it is possible for a similar elision to target the object rather than the subject, when the semantics allows only that interpretation, but it is odd:

* He got that dog when still a puppy. [when that dog was still a puppy.]

My ear doesn't like it that the object "that dog" is being elided, and that I'm forced to take that interpretation by the semantics.

He got that dog {*when | ?? while | as} a puppy.

While seems somewhat more acceptable compared to when, but I'm not able to articulate a plausible hypothesis why.

Regarding "as", note that if we have:

He married her as a student at Harvard.

It is now ambiguous: was she the student or he?

Moreover, it is no longer elision. "as a student" is a complete phrase. We don't know whether it modifies "her" (she as a student) or the action (he married as a student).

The sentence:

He got that dog as a puppy.

also has the grammatic ambiguity, but we interpret it the only way it makes sense. Either interpretation has comfortable grammar: there isn't the conflict of having to choose the sensible meaning, yet being uncomfortable with the grammatic structure which that meaning requires.

  • I've got no major objections to your answer, but , I believe you've clarified something that I was unable to articulate. I knew when and while are only interchangeable when they represent the same part of speech, but I hadn't considered how closely related they are even when not so. I believe that in He got that dog while a puppy is using while as a preposition, which is why it's so easily replaced by as. And interestingly, while the as in He married her as a student at Harvard could function as a preposition, I read it as being a conjunction too, with he was elided. Dec 6, 2013 at 5:28
  • He married her as/while/when a student at Harvard can all be read with the words in bold type as being conjunctions--with essentially the same meanings--and with he was elided from the relative clause. However, as you smartly point out, as could very well be a preposition in that sentence, thus creating some ambiguity. When/while both provide a temporal sense that reduces that ambiguity. But what's the precise difference between these two (genuine curiosity)? I'd never had reason to give this much thought, so I'm struggling to discern a difference in meaning in a conjunctive sense. Dec 6, 2013 at 5:34

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