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Why doesn't just a sense work as the subject in the following sentence? Why does it need in a sense?

A sense we were witnessing someone pushing boundaries and defying conventions.

You could have:

A sense of fear washed over him.

  • I don't understand the question. Do you have an example of a sentence that doesn't work? – Anonymous Apr 30 at 23:50
  • I thought the first example was a noun phrase versus the second with the subject (a sense of fear) – bluebell1 May 1 at 12:45
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Yes, you can say:

✔ A sense of fear washed over him.

This is because a sense of fear is a noun phrase. What washed over him? A sense of fear. In other words:

[A sense of fear] washed over him.
[A wave] crashed into him.
[A bird] landed on the ground.

But your first sentence is also constructed in such a way that a sense is being used as a noun phrase—and that doesn't allow it to fit with how the sentence finishes.

✘ [A sense] we were witnessing someone pushing boundaries.
✘ [An apple] we were eating something out of the oven.
✘ [Some ideas] we were thinking nobody should work today.

The sentence can be rephrased in a couple of ways. Both are grammatical, although only the first actually makes sense:

We were witnessing [someone] pushing boundaries.
[A sense] we were witnessing was pushing boundaries.


In a sense, on the other hand, is actually an idiom that means something beyond the joining of the three individual words:

[Merriam-Webster]
in a/one sense idiom
: in one way : from one point of view
// In one sense, he was correct.

So, when you add in to the start of a sense, you are changing it from a noun phrase to a dependent clause that is acting as either an adjectival phrase or adverbial phrase—depending on its context. (In your sentence, it's an adverbial phrase that modifies witnessing.)

In short, the sentence you are questioning can be (correctly) seen as follows:

✔ [In a sense,] we were witnessing someone pushing boundaries and defying conventions.
✔ [In one way,] we were witnessing someone pushing boundaries and defying conventions.
✔ [From one point of view,] we were witnessing someone pushing boundaries and defying conventions.

  • The performance was good, and there was a sense we were experiencing something new, a sense we were witnessing someone pushing boundaries and defying conventions. (So is it a comma splice when its given context or a noun phrase still?) – bluebell1 May 1 at 12:45
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    @bluebell1 That particular sentence may or may not be a comma splice. It depends on if you interpret a sense we were witnessing as a third item in a list (in which case it is a comma splice) or as an appositive that modifies a sense we were experiencing something new (in which case it is not a comma splice). It's open to interpretation. My inclination is to treat it as an appositive because of the repetition of a sense. By the way that's something quite different than your original question. – Jason Bassford May 1 at 15:49

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