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He was inducted as a child.

In this example, what does the prepositional phrase 'as a child' modify? One would think that it describes the pronoun 'he', but if this is the case, shouldn't it be positioned beside the subject? If we look at the examples that I have listed below, the prepositional phrases immediately follow what they describe.

The house on the shore was a sight to behold.

The cutlery in his hand was cold.

The conclusion, therefore, is that the prepositional phrase 'as a child' is acting adverbially and thus modifying the past participle 'inducted'. But that doesn't seem right to me.

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"As a child" can be preposed, which is a good sign it is an adverbial modifier within the clause:

  • As a child, he was inducted.

Assuming he is no longer a child, we understand this to mean:

  • When he was a child, he was inducted.

Note that this is different from "as" used with certain verbs, e.g.:

  • He was described as a child. ≠ As a child, he was described.
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He was inducted as a child.

In strict grammar, "as a child" modifies "abducted" here while in

He, as a child, was inducted.

it clearly modifies "he", But in both cases the final meaning is: "when he was a child, he was inducted." and it doesn't much matter whether "as a child' is said to modify "he" or "abducted". Indeed one might say that it modifies the entire main clause "He was inducted".

You are correct that the general rule (or perhaps "guideline rather than "rule") is that a modifier should be adjacent to the element modified, and most often after it, although not always. However, a modifier is sometimes placed in a different position for emphasis or style, and then context and meaning must indicate what is being modified.

For example:

She saw him operate the lathe with red hair.

Presumably he did not operate the lathe using hair, so "with red hair" modifies "him", but is placed last for emphasis. (Perhaps he had dyed his hair and the author wants to draw attention to that.) But in another example with the same form the modifier has a different meaning:

She saw him operate the lathe with a remote control.

Here clearly "with a remote control" modifies "operate". The meaning takes precedence over the grammatical form here. In the more general form

She saw him {verb phrase} with {modifier phrase}

One cannot be sure what is being modified. Most likely it is the verb, but not always.

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  • In "She saw him operate the lathe with red hair", the PP "with red hair" is a constituent of the VP, not of the NP "him". It's best analysed as a predicative adjunct: predicative because it refers to a predicand, i.e. "him" (or possibly "she") and adjunct because it's a modifier in the structure of the VP.
    – BillJ
    Oct 4, 2021 at 17:16

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