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This quotation is taken from New Concept English 3 lesson 5.

"The article began: 'Hundreds of steps lead to the high wall which surrounds the president's palace.' The editor at once sent the journalist a telegram instructing him to find out the exact number of steps and the height of the wall."

Is "instructing ..." here an adjective modifying the telegram or an adverb of purpose?

Can I replace "instructing" with "to instruct" without affecting the meaning of the sentence?

What about putting a comma in front of "instructing"? Does it still mean the same thing?

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  • "Instructing" is a gerund-participial verb. It functions as head of the gerund-participial clause in bold, which is modifying the noun "telegram". It's not replaceable with "instruct".
    – BillJ
    Jan 23, 2018 at 13:09
  • Thank you @BillJ , but I'm still confused. If the participial clause here modifies "telegram", then I believe I can rewrite the sentence as "... a telegram which instruct ...". It follows that the noun "telegram" can be the subject of the verb "instruct" in a sentence, which seems strange to me. I always assume the subject of the verb "instruct" should be a human being. To make my second question clear, I'd say: 'is "instructing" replaceable with "to instruct"?'
    – Delta
    Jan 23, 2018 at 14:19
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    Yes, you can replace the gerund-participial clause "instructing him to..." with the relative clause "which instructed him ..." with no change in meaning. In both cases, " a telegram which instructed him .. / instructing him ..." is a noun phrase headed by telegram. You could also replace it with the infinitival clause "to instruct him ...", with no real change in meaning.
    – BillJ
    Jan 23, 2018 at 18:34
  • To add to my last message, "a telegram" is not the subject of the verb "instruct(ing). The clause is subjectless, though we understand the subject to be "a telegram". But note that "instruct" could have "a telegram" as syntactic subject, e.g., in "The telegram instructs him to find ...".
    – BillJ
    Jan 23, 2018 at 19:06

1 Answer 1

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Instructing is modifying the telegram.

You can replace ...telegram instructing him... with ...telegram, to instruct him..., although it sounds a little less fluent.

...to instruct him to find out...

Two tos in one sentence is too much, and feels awkward when speaking aloud.(Try it!)
Woah, try saying that ten times fast.

Additionally, I would punctuate the sentence like so:

The article began: 'Hundreds of steps lead to the high wall which surrounds the president's palace.' The editor at once sent the journalist a telegram instructing him to find out the exact number of steps, and the height of the wall.

(note the extra comma on the last line)

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  • Thank you for your reply, but I'm still confused. If the participial phrase here modifies "telegram", then I believe I can rewrite the sentence as "... a telegram which instruct ...". It follows that the noun "telegram" can be the subject of the verb "instruct" in a sentence, which seems strange to me. I always assume the subject of the verb "instruct" should be a human being. Could you please help me make it clear?
    – Delta
    Jan 23, 2018 at 15:24
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    Instruct typically would have an animate subject like a person, but it is possible for it and similar verbs to have an inanimate subject which is a means of conveying information ("the sign instructed", "The poster warned", etc)
    – eques
    Jan 23, 2018 at 16:02
  • @eques Jan Is it also possible that "instructing" takes "the editor" as its implied subject. If it is not possible, how do you exclude this. (I consider we can say both "The editor instructs him"and "The telegram instructs him")
    – ForOU
    Apr 24, 2020 at 16:25

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