Smoke hung in the air above the city.

I see lots of sentences containing the structure of "verbal phrase + prepositional phrase + prepositional phrase" like the example above.

I just do not know whether the second prepositional phrase (in this example, above the city) modifies the verb (hung), or if it modifies the noun (the air) in the first prepositional phrase.

3 Answers 3


SHORT ANSWER: It modifies neither.

This is actually a more complicated matter than traditional grammar can handle.

  1. Neither of these two preposition phrases really modifies the verb hung. Verbs like this one are called ‘linking’ or ‘copular’ verbs because they link the subject to a complement which describes the subject—a subject complement.

    The most common copular verb is BE, but there are also verbs of perception such as appear , seem, sound, look, taste which ordinarily take adjectival complements describing how the subject is perceived, and verbs of location which ordinarily take ‘adverbial’ complements describing where the subject is to be found. In this case, intransitive hang takes in the air above the city as a subject complement.

    Note that transitive hang similarly takes an object complement: in the sentence “He hung the bag on a hook”, the preposition phrase ‘modifies’ the Direct Object bag, tells the location where the bag is to be found.

    For this reason I have to dissent from Nico’s characterization of this as a dangling modifier; it is both semantically and syntactically quite unambiguous what is where.

  2. As for the sequence of two preposition phrases ... I’m talking off the top of my head now, and I think it likely that modern grammars have a more incisive description of what is going on here. But it seems to me that the second phrase does not so much ‘modify’ or qualify the first as it supplements it. This works rather like chained adjectives before a noun: in the phrase a big red box, big does not qualify red, it provides additional information.

    However, as Nico quite cogently tells you, it doesn’t really matter how you parse the sequence. You could flip this to above the city in the air and it would not change the sense. By and large, however, we prefer to order the phrases as you have it, moving from the more general location to the more particular.

The reason for calling this a “preposition phrase” rather than a “prepositional phrase” is treated here.

  • Would the same reasoning apply to smoke hung in a cloud above the city? If above the city would modify hung, it would mean the smoke formed a cloud. If above the city would modify in a cloud, it could be interpreted as a pre-existing cloud holding the ascend of a smoke column.
    – Nico
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:08
  • @Nico To express your second version we wouldn't say the smoke hung in the cloud: we would say that it "rose into the cloud above the city and hung there". But that's very far-fetched: how would spectators distinguish the cloud from the smoke hanging in it? Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:12
  • Thanks. Now, I see clearly that hang acting as a copular verb precludes interpreting this sentence as a case of dangling modifier.
    – Nico
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:23
  • @Nico Grammar has gotten a great deal more complicated (and a great deal more interesting) since I was a schoolboy 50+ years ago! Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:24
  • thx! @StoneyB You are really good at grasping the key point of questions. As an advanced English learner, I always run into all kinds of sentences the traditional grammar fails to explain. Nice job! I now understand e.g. "throw a ball up in the sky", up and in the sky can both act as the object complement here. They do not modify each other.
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 13:41

That is known as a dangling modifier and a source of ambiguity.

In the example Smoke hung in the air above the city the ambiguity is irrelevant, but in other cases the sentence would have to be edited.

Here's an example taken from the wikipedia entry linked above:

I saw the trailer peeking through the window.

This sentence could be understood as either the person or the trailer peeking through the window. To remove the ambiguity, Wikipedia suggests to recast the sentence as:

Peeking through the window, I saw the trailer

  • THX, but your answer helps me how?
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 13:10
  • @ZhanlongZheng: sorry about the messy answer. I've already updated it with an example of the ambiguity discussed in the wikipedia entry.
    – Nico
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 13:27
  • so you mean "above the city" modifies "smoke" in my example? @Nico
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 13:32
  • 1
    @ZhanlongZheng: what I mean is that it is irrelevant. It doesn't matter whether above the air modifies smoke hung or in the air. In both cases the smoke will be hanging above the city. I think the example from wikipedia illustrates better this kind of ambiguity.
    – Nico
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 13:43
  • @ZhanlongZheng Nico is saying that it's not clear which it modifies, but also that it doesn't matter because the meaning is the same for both (in your example). Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 14:09

The sentence says there was smoke somewhere. And where? In the air and the sentence means the air above the city, and not the air above the forest or the lake.

  • I created the confusion by not realising that hung in Smoke hung in the air above the city is acting as a copular verb. In simple words, the sentence is equivalent to Smoke was in the air above the city. Without going into the details, I would say @StoneyB made the point that the wikipedia entry on dangling modifiers does not apply to copular verbs. I tried to come up with a good counter-example, but I failed.
    – Nico
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 22:05
  • Sorry @rogermue You fail to understand what I am asking here. thx all the same!
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 13:51
  • That's absolutely right. I fail to see what your problem with that simple sentence is.
    – rogermue
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 18:59
  • I edited this answer to remove "lack of understanding" and "lack of imagination" text. Those non-answer elements could be posted as valid questions to enhance the author's understanding of English (complicated answers) and to meta.ell regarding needs of language learners (not knowing why questions are being asked). Also note that if you have specific questions about a particular question or answer, the appropriate place to ask for better understanding would be in the comments section. A post in which 50% declares your non-understanding is not in the spirit of answering questions. Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 22:22

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