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Sometimes, as I sat at my window, so heedlessly did they (boughs) grow and tax their weak joints, I heard a fresh and tender bough suddenly fall like a fan to the ground, when there was not a breath of air stirring, broken off by its own weight.

  1. I assumed that the complete sentence containing 'broken off by its own weight' is 'I heard a fresh and tender bough broken off by its own weight', and the 'when' phrase is a parenthesis.

    But it seems like that the verb after a verb of perception should be in the simple form or -ing form, Can I use past tense verbs here? Or did I misunderstand the sentence?

  2. I figure 'stirring' is used to describe 'a breath of air', can a gerund be used like this? Thank you very much.

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In some cases, verbs can behave like adjectives. I believe the term for them is 'attributive verbs'. The sentence might be a bit clearer to you if I rearrange it:

I heard a fresh and tender bough, having been broken off by its own weight suddenly fall like a fan to the ground, when there was not a breath of air stirring.

Another, more simple example might be:

The person talking is my friend.

In this case, 'talking' describes the friend, and therefore behaves like an adjective.

The term 'broken off by its own weight' acts as a description for the bough. This usage is perfectly grammatically correct, and you did not misunderstand the sentence.

To answer your second question about stirring: it is not a gerund, it is the past continuous. Stirring means agitating, or disturbing, it simple means that there was no wind disturbing the branch (so it didn’t fall because of the wind)

  • Thank you very much, It's much clearer after the rearrangement! But I still can't get how 'broken off' can describe 'the bough' in the sentence. It seems like that the subject of the whole phrase is 'I heard', and the past tense verb 'broken' is probably supposed to describe the subject of the sentence, or can it describe other parts of a sentence other than its subject? – ShinYam Feb 4 at 4:27
  • I is the subject, and ‘the bough... broken off by its own weight’ is the object, you’re right; however, the bit about the bough is a clause within the sentence, and has its own subject (the bough). Not every verb needs to be associated with the subject, for example: I threw the ball, and it broke the vase. In this sentence, I am the subject, the ball is the direct object, and the vase is the indirect object. The verb “broke” has nothing to do with the subject. This is fine, because it is in a subordinate clause. – Alex Feb 4 at 4:38
  • I’ve edited the answer for the second part of your question – Alex Feb 4 at 4:44
  • So because 'broken' is in a subordinate clause, it can have its own subject ( 'the bough' ) , but 'the bough has' is omitted in this sentence as one can get it from the context? Is this interpretation correct? – ShinYam Feb 4 at 5:12
  • Yes! Thank you for pointing out the past continuous! I didn't know this before and I'm checking it out. – ShinYam Feb 4 at 5:14
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broken off by its own weight

"Broken" is a participle introducing a phrase modifying "bough."

Part of the problem here is that, in order to be understood easily, such adjectival phrases need to be close to the noun that is intended to be modified. In my youth, I would have been told that this was a "misplaced modifier" and told to rewrite so as to place the modifier closer to the noun modified. Every Monday, we would be given sentences from papers and asked to identify any errors and correct them without changing the apparent meaning. In other words, we were taught how to self-edit and to rewrite. But today the stress is on expressing yourself even if what is expressed is incomprehensible gibberish.

So enough of regretting the sorry state of education. If we try to fix just the most blatant infelicities in the mess that you were subjected to, we might get

I heard a fresh and tender bough, broken off by its own weight, suddenly fall like a fan to the ground even though not a breath of air was stirring

It is till a very clunky sentence, particularly because, as you alluded to, the verb of perception makes little sense. No one hears a bough falling. One can see a bough falling. One can also hear the crack of a bough breaking or the crash of a bough landing. One might even hear the rustling of the leaves of a falling bough. But the implication of a falling fan is silence: something that may be visible but not audible.

Even the word "bough" is ill chosen. A bough is sizable. It does not float like a fan quietly to earth. Nor is a bough fresh and tender. What is meant is "shoot" or "sprig," and I greatly doubt that you can actually hear a new shoot drop from a tree.

I sympathize. It must be hard to learn English from texts written by those whose own English is pitiable.

  • Thank you for answering the question! 🤣This is actually a sentence from Walden: Life in the Woods, I sometimes got confused by its grammar, but for the most part the book is very beautifully written and idyllic🤣 – ShinYam Feb 4 at 6:03
  • Well now I am accusing Thoreau of having been let down by modern education. Quite absurd. I guess it proves just how out of sympathy I am with 19th century Romantic literature, at least of the American variety. – Jeff Morrow Feb 4 at 6:26

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