Can a noun or word have more than one case?

I was thinking the phrase "you look like a spider climbing up the stairs" before I thought that within that phrase or sentence, "spider" might be a subject complement, similative case and an object of preposition.


You look [like a spider climbing up the stairs].

No: a word or phrase can (normally) have only one function in a clause.

In your example, "like" is an adjective in predicative complement function, with "look like" meaning "resemble".

The noun phrase "a spider climbing up the stairs" is complement of "like", and the whole adjective phrase "like a spider climbing up the stairs" functions as subjective predicative complement of "look".

  • I thought 'like' is a preposition or an adverbial conjunction in this clause. Is 'like' a preposition or an adverbial conjunction in this clause? And why do you think 'like' is an adjective? Mar 26 '21 at 22:31
  • @user6779864 It's an adjective because it can be modified by "very" ("very like a spider ...") and because it accepts analytic comparison ("more like a spider"). Note that "look" could be replaced with "be", as in "You are like a spider ...", where "like a spider" is clearly a predicative adjective phrase.
    – BillJ
    Mar 27 '21 at 7:00
  • I think prepositions can be modified by 'very' and 'more' too and prepositions might accept analytic comparison or I think prepositions can go with 'more'. I think 'like a spider' might be a predicative prepositional phrase. Apr 4 '21 at 18:06

In an analysis of a sentence, a noun has one grammatical function. This means that when a linguist describes a sentence then each word is described as an subject, object, complement etc.

But this does not mean that there are no ambiguous sentences. In "Time flies like an arrow/ Fruit flies like a banana" the word "flies is first a verb, and second a noun.

Moreover different grammarians may parse a sentence differently. The "rules" of English are (like any other language) not perfectly understood and different people will sometimes disagree on what the correct analysis should be. An in-depth reading of (for example) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language will find differences in opinion and analysis. Many of these differences will be minor.

In you particular example, the Noun phrase "spider climbing up the stairs" is the complement of "like" and in this noun phrase, "spider" is the noun that heads the phrase, and "climbing up the stairs" is a participle phrase that modifies "spider".

  • Though "flies" belongs to two different categories in your examples, it still has only one function in each clause: 'predicator' in the first and 'head' in the second.
    – BillJ
    Mar 26 '21 at 8:09

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