Sometimes I come across sentences where adjectives is used and act like adverbs (?) . Usually they are placed at the end of the sentences. I understand them perfectly but grammatical structure seems interesting to me. Could you clarify the exact function of these adjectives ? I copied some of them down below.

1- I was lying half asleep on my sofa.

2- He lies motionless under white sheets in a bedroom

3- They burned the ants alive.

4- Bring him back alive.

  • You might want to change that: I burned them alive. It sounds pretty horrifying. How about: They burned the ants alive. Sounds better.
    – Lambie
    Feb 19, 2019 at 19:47

1 Answer 1


For the first two, to lie (or to lay) is being used as a linking verb. Linking verbs can take adjectives as complements in place of a noun or noun phrase as objects. Lie and lay are not always linking verbs, but they are sometimes.

The simple (but not flawless) way to tell if a verb (that doesn't have any auxiliary verbs currently attached) is being a linking verb is if it could be replaced with the relevant for of to be and still make sense. If there are auxiliary verbs, it's more complex.

So, looking at your second example, we can turn it into:

He is motionless under white sheets in a bedroom

The first has an auxiliary to be attached to it already, so we have to work out what the equivalent to be form will be. Taking it as a literal conversion we get was being, and that gives us something that makes sense - is just not how anyone would say it:

I was being half-asleep on my sofa

Let's call that:

I was half-asleep on my sofa

Now, in both cases we've lost meaning, but we haven't become completely meaningless. Verbs that are more often linking verbs include to appear, to seem, and to look, but many have non-linking senses as well.

Linking verbs are those that refer to appearance, status, having characteristics, and so on. They do not describe direct action or control by the subject. Now, there's direct action when you lie down, but if you're just lying, you just lie there. So we have a subject, a linking verb, an adjective, and an adverbial of place.

The other two examples are a little more complex. I would say they were set phrases which most likely started as having adverbials that suffered from ellipsis to get rid of extraneous verbiage.

They burned the ants while they were alive

Bring him back while he is alive

But that's a hypothetical. What we can say is that there is a pattern that allows us to put an adjective describing the object after the key components of the S-V-O, even if words have been shifted in their order. Whatever the cause or development, what we can do describe the object with an adjective at the end of the phrase, at least in some cases. Sometimes it describes the state of the object at the start of the action, and sometimes at the end.

I'll beat you bloody

Though that could be ellipsis again

I'll beat you until you are bloody

There are different ways to explain it, and I expect you'll find linguists have come up with more explanations than I have. The easiest is probably just to consider "bring X back alive", "beat X bloody", and "burn X alive" as set phrases - among many others.

  • Thanks a lot. This usage(the usage used in my last two sentences) can describe the state of the object during the action right ? not just the state at the end or at the start. I also have more examples if you are interested. "I painted my room black." and "I find this game boring." Can we say that this examples have the same structure to the last two sentences? Feb 20, 2019 at 9:39
  • "I find this game boring is sort of like a linking verb, in that it's usual to have an adjective there when using it in a way that looks ditransitive. I think that one really is ellipsis - "I find this game to be boring".
    – SamBC
    Feb 20, 2019 at 10:14
  • For painting the room, I'm less sure. I think it fits the latter examples.
    – SamBC
    Feb 20, 2019 at 10:36

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