I wrote the following sentence.

Colonization hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such situation.

I think I have used "hundreds of years ago" as a modifier of "colonization" while it is primarily an adverb used with verbs. Is my assumption correct, or there are other problems?

A better alternative I can think of:

Colonization taken place hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such situation.

What are your recommendations? If "hundreds of years ago” is not an adverbial phrase, which grammatical role does it play?

  • 2
    There's nothing wrong with "Colonization hundreds of years ago". It's the rest which is problematic. It's clear what you mean, but you've used the wrong phrases. You hold people and organisations accountable, not the activities they do. And such situation is barely grammatical. It either needs to be such a situation, or a more direct this/the current situation. – Colin Fine Jan 20 at 13:30
  • Sorry folks... Colonization cannot be held accountable for anything whatsoever. Only people and groups with people in them can be held accountable. Parallelism, glorification, colonization, and cleanliness cannot be held accountable, kapish? – Patriot Feb 7 at 12:33

Adjectives and Adverbs

To tell apart adjectives and adverbs, "the adverb questions" are a handy tool. Asking the right ones helps you identify the adverbs in a sentence.

Sentence Question Answer (Adverb)
Sam freed up the clog with a plunger. How did Sam free up the clog? With a plunger.
Max barely studies. To what extent does Max study? Barely.
Last week, Alex visited China. When did Alex visit China? Last week.
Jordan, come here with your assignment. Where? Here.
Ezra became a doctor to help people. Why did Ezra become a doctor? To help people.

You were right: hundreds of years ago is usually an adverb of time. However, here it is not one. An illustration:

Sentence Question Adverb
The Vietnam War ended over 30 years ago.¹ When did the Vietnam War end? Thirty years ago.
Gabriel thought back to the three items he'd discovered in her jewelry box: the compass, a soul and the tarnished ring he gave her hundreds of years ago.² When did he give her the ring? Hundreds of years ago.
Colonization hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such situation. What kind of colonisation? is the sensible question here. None (unless we change the sentence to Hundreds of years ago, colonisation was responsible for such a situation and alter its meaning).

Now it is fair to assume hundreds of years ago is filling the adjectival position. That brings us to the second half under this header: adjectives.

Usage under the next heading implies N * of years ago is rarely used as a noun unit. Far more common is N from * of years ago:

¹ collected from here
² collected from here

Usage of N * of years ago

Here is some usage of this form where * of years ago is strictly an adjective.

Everything we've checked out so far says that supernovae billions of years ago look very similar to the ones of today.¹
Exploding stars tell all by Robert Irion in Astronomy: November 1998

It enabled me to look back to the remote past, into the material records of man's efforts hundreds of years ago, and contrast them with the modern progress of arts and sciences.
Engineer: An Autobiography by James Nasmyth

However, compared to its use with * of years ago as an adverb, the other usage is rare in COHA. For example,

John Quincy Adams thirty years ago declared that ....
New Departure of the Republican Party by Henry Wilson in Atlantic Monthly: January 1871

¹ Note this is also correct should look have been a transcribing error for looked; however, then billions of years ago is likely an adverb.

Your sentence

The improvable parts are three in number.

Colonization hundreds of years ago

Some noteworthy points here:

  • If this colonisation has been referenced before, use "the colonisation".
  • According to the first heading, "Colonisation from hundreds of years ago" is a better choice. It will be understood easily by many people.
    By contrast, "Colonisation hundreds of years ago" is still understandable though rarer. One might consider it for more formal documents.

Is held accountable

Some thoughts on the passive voice used here:

  • Who holds colonisation accountable? goes unanswered. One should not use the passive voice to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. Besides, the active voice is more clear.
    One should (a) mention the party (Let us call it Responsible Party), as in "Responsible Party holds Colonisation responsible ..." or (b) cite an authoritative source where this claim is justified, as in "Dogs can relieve stress.¹"

Such situation

The key problem here:

  • Here, you use "situation" as an abstract noun. However, you really mean to use the countable situation. This calls for using "such a situation".


The following form, which uses Responsible Party as a pseudonym, is one candidate.

Responsible Party holds colonization from hundreds of years ago accountable for such a situation.

Another alternative in case you wish to be subtler:

Colonization from hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such a situation.¹
(where "¹" points to a footnote)

You could combine the footnote and the active voice for what I think is the best variant.

  • Excellent answer! But "hundreds of years ago" can both be an adj and an adverb? – HypnoticBuggyWraithVirileBevy Jan 20 at 13:50
  • @Phantomwagerwallowgiltopus It's not a standard adjective. Omitting words in adjectives is sometimes okay, as in This is a statue (that was) carved out of stone. By the same token, This is colonisation (that was) hundreds of years ago is okay. The problem is, in the first sentence, was carved is in the passive whereas, in was hundreds of years ago, was is a stative verb meaning existed. This is still a long shot. I would not use colonisation hundreds of years ago as it is confusing, unidiomatic and the implicit words unclear. Usage agrees, as it is rare as an adjective. – niamulbengali Jan 20 at 14:13
  • I get it. Thanks, can I add your skype or something so that I can send you some of my writing, if you don't mind – HypnoticBuggyWraithVirileBevy Jan 21 at 1:02

I take it that someone has told you there is an error. My first idea is that they want you to put the article "a" before situation. Some might think it unnecessary, but as an American speaker I think you want it - unless you are talking about the location that a colony literally is situated in. Even then, just to avoid someone interpreting situation as state of affairs or condition, you might just use for being thus situated instead.

As another answerer points out, the phrase you describe as adverbial is not... it might help for me to say that "colonization" is a noun, not a verb, so the phrase would be adjectival, not adverbial.

Below there you should say "An alternative I think is better", as otherwise you sound like you are saying you are an authority on what is best... also I don't think it is better (just the same but longer I'd say), but I think it is acceptable grammatically. To be safe, "which took place" or "having taken place" wouldn't hurt.

Do you think the "a" is what was considered erroneous?

  • After u have pointed it out, now I know it is a mistake. But initially I thought "hundreds of years ago" was an adv – HypnoticBuggyWraithVirileBevy Jan 20 at 13:49

I don't really understand what you are saying; "hundreds of years ago" is not an adverb. "Colonization hundreds of years ago" is perfectly correct.

Your "better alternative" is in fact worse; you would need to say something like "Colonization, which took place hundreds of years ago, is ...".

However there is a problem in both sentences: you can't say "such situation". You possibly meant "such a situation", although that is also a bit clumsy. Probably the best would just be "this situation".

  • appreciate your explanation, then what grammatical part does "hundreds of years ago”? If it is not an adverbial phrase. – HypnoticBuggyWraithVirileBevy Jan 14 at 10:45

Colonization hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such situation. (incorrect)

Colonization hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such a situation. (a specific situation)

Colonization hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such situations. (all of a number of such situations)

Colonization taken place hundreds of years ago is held accountable ... (incorrect)

Colonization that took place hundreds of years ago is held accountable ...


Colonization hundreds of years ago is held accountable for such situation.

Colonization cannot be held responsible for anything. Colonialists, on the other hand, can be held to account.

Furthermore, we do not generally think of colonization as a situation. Instead, we think of it as an aggressive act. However, we could speak of the situations that colonization caused, causes, or may cause.

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