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He learns about his responsibility as heir to the throne.

In the sentence above, the 'as' prepositional phrase follows the noun 'responsibility'. Initially, I thought that it might complement said noun by describing it, and perhaps it is describing the nature of the responsibility. However, 'he' is clearly the heir to the throne in question, so I'm not sure. If it is describing 'he', shouldn't it be beside the noun?

As heir to the throne, he learns about his responsibility.

This is another example, which moves the prepositional phrase to the front. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I always had the impression that fronted prepositional phrases function adverbially. However, this seems to modify 'he' again, not 'learns'.

How should this be broken down?

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  1. Yes, there is potential ambiguity in the first construction, but it's largely a coincidence of the specific sentence. He learns fencing as heir to the throne. <- In this one, regardless of syntax, the "as heir" phrase is understood to modify "learns" rather than "fencing."
  2. Yes, you could argue that the sentence could mean that he learns the special way one fences when one is heir to the throne—"He learns fencing-as-heir-to-the-throne"—but it would be silly. Context helps clarify what modifies what. So yes, you could argue that "He learns about his responsibility as heir to the throne" could mean "He learns, as heir to the throne, about his responsibility," but syntax makes it much more likely to be understood as "He learns about the responsibility [that is his] as heir to the throne."
  3. Yes, when you front the prepositional phrase, it is in fact acting as an adverb and does in fact modify "learns." Again, there's room for confusion because a prepositional phrase starting with "as" also coincidentally happens to say something that is true of the subject, but that doesn't change its function. Consider other prepositional phrases: "In the nick of time, he arrived..." "Out of nowhere, a bird appeared..." "In my heart, I know it's true..." Or, to put it more simply: "heir to the throne" could modify a noun, but "as heir to the throne" couldn't.
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  • Could you say that prepositional phrases that start with 'as' acting adverbially (as you say these two examples are) answer the question why? He's learning because he is the heir to throne.
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 22, 2021 at 16:07
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    @MJAda Yes, that makes sense. "As a modern gentleman, I always carry a pocket-handkerchief made from fairly-traded cotton" more or less aligns with "Because I am a modern gentleman...." "As a floor manager, I handle disgruntled customers every day" -> "Because I am a floor manager..." It gets a little weird because there isn't as strong an implication of causation, but it helps make grammatic sense of it. Oct 22, 2021 at 16:30

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