So I have two cases,

  1. The path students saw ...

  2. The college students saw ...

Is there any grammatical way to separate these two cases? I know it is rather easy to determine this based on the meaning of the words, but if I was to put it like this,

  1. determiner-noun-noun(plural)-verb(past tense) ...
  2. determiner-noun-noun(plural)-verb(past tense) ...

The two would be identical. I guess that something after this part might help separate the sentences grammatically, for example,

  1. The path students saw was correct.
  2. The college students saw trees.

There is a difference even when I abstract them,

  1. determiner-noun-noun(plural)-verb(past tense)-verb(past tense)-adjective
  2. determiner-noun-noun(plural)-verb(past tense)-verb(past tense)-noun

But would this be true (i.e. be separable purely grammatically) in all cases?

Thanks in advance

  • 1
    Context, Context, Context! So The college students applied to was unlicensed (subject noun is an unlicensed college), as opposed to The college students were unlicensed (subject noun is unlicensed students). Aug 12, 2018 at 14:56
  • @FumbleFingers That is sort of my question: could you deduce which case is which purely grammatically if there was full context in every case. Aug 12, 2018 at 15:03

3 Answers 3


English is an analytical language. That means that the grammatical nature of a word that you see will be determined by the role it plays in the sentence and the sentence's syntax. The same word could be a verb or a noun, or an adjunct noun. In the case of an analytical language, you cannot determine the role of a word without seeing the whole sentence.

Specifically, for your examples, if the preceding noun of the two is not an adjunct noun, it is an object of the subordinate clause, and thus another verb is coming, because the main clause has to have a predicate.

The path students saw... was rough and bumpy.

(The path which students saw (or "The path seen by the students") was such-and such.)

If the preceding noun of the two is an adjunct noun, then it's all one noun phrase which is the subject of the sentence, and "was" is the predicate of that sentence, so no other verb is forthcoming.

That said, even if one sees a sentence (or part of the sentence) without a context, one tries to imagine which text it would fit into nicely. In the case of "The path students saw...", if we were talking about some students that have seen a specific path (after all, there is a "the" in front of the path), then it would be in a text that is telling a story about those students, and the students would have been already described and would have required their own "the".

The path the students saw was rough and bumpy.

(As part of a continuation of a story about a group of students who, say, have gone on a hike in a forest.)

The absence of "the" in front of "students" does make me (in this particular example) think that this sentence is about "the students of the path" (e.g., I don't know, students that have come to some guru to study his "Path").

But the main way to determine these things is to have a complete sentence and assign S-V-O status to its various components.


There is no grammatical way to distinguish the one from the other

The path students saw ...

so that you would know how to complete the sentence.

The path students saw the light.

The path students saw was steep and muddy.

Both of those are grammatically well-formed and only if path as modifier makes no sense to you would you reject the sentence on semantic grounds.

However, if you have the full sentence:

The path students saw was steep and muddy.

you can know. was is the main verb and there is a predication steep and muddy which needs a subject. The noun phrase which is the subject of was itself contains a verb, so that we recognize students saw as an integral/restrictive clause modifying The path.

  • Could there be a case where even knowing the full sentence is no help? Aug 12, 2018 at 13:54
  • 2
    Yes, if the present tense of the verb is also a valid plural noun, for example: "The concrete workers pour sets." or "The hamster caretakers enjoy squeals." Here, some context (the verb tense of the surrounding sentences, for instance) is useful. Aug 12, 2018 at 19:08
  • This is the stuff of headline gags :)
    – TimR
    Aug 13, 2018 at 11:45

In order to construct an ambiguous example, we're going to need some words that allow for more than one grammatical construction. For example, "eat" can be transitive (I eat corn) or intransitive (I eat). For another example, "recognize" is always transitive but it can take either a noun or a clause as its object. Using these, we can construct an ambiguous example like:

I recognize the corn farmers ate.

Taking "corn" as a noun adjunct, "eat" as intransitive, and "recognize" as having a subordinate clause as its object, this means roughly: "I recognize that this happened: The corn farmers ate food." Or, taking "corn" as the noun object of "recognize" and "eat" as transitive in a relative clause, this means roughly: "I recognize the corn. This is the corn which the farmers ate."

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