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Most of the time, participle clauses are used in sentences like the ones that I have written below (all of which feature present participles):

[1] Walking the dog, she breathed the fresh air.

[2] He saw the woman walking the dog.

[3] He saw the walking woman.

However, on occasion, I will encounter sentences such as example [4], a partial quote from author Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity.

[4] She opened the door and for a moment he stood looking at her ….

This breaks the standard format that most participle clauses take, featuring no comma and modifying the verb 'stood'. That said, can a participle clause function adverbially in this way? If so, does the same apply to past participle clauses?

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    I think the comma is just a suggestion, not a rule. I'm not sure how #4 is really different from #1: they both modify how an action is performed.
    – stangdon
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 22:28
  • @stangdon I think my confusion arises from the fact that many online articles describe participle clauses such as example [1] as adjectival modifiers, the implication being that they describe the subject. Additionally, examples like [4] are sparse when compared to [1]. This is not to say that you're wrong; I have likely been the recipient of misinformation.
    – MJ Ada
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 22:38
  • In sentence 4, "looking at her" can still be considered to modify "he". However, it can also be considered adverbial. Present participles often function as adverbs, e.g.: "Considering our revenues, there is no reason to cut the budget." The same is true of past participles: "Given our revenues, there is no reason to cut the budget." (These particular participle phrases are sometimes called "sentence adverbs".) Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 5:06
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    You'll often want to include while before such adverbials to avoid potential ambiguity. But in He saw the woman walking the dog while breathing the fresh air, even though we know (because of while) that it's not the dog breathing the fresh air, it's still ambiguous as to whether the adverbial modifies him or her. Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 14:13

3 Answers 3

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Gerunds

[4] She opened the door and for a moment he stood looking at her.

Transformed so the gerund phase as subject can be seen:

  • |Looking at her| is what he had been doing for the last ten minutes.

A gerund phrase can be the subject or object in a sentence. Or a subject phrase or object phrase complement.

gerunds as objects and subjects

Gerunds A gerund is a verbal that ends in -ing and functions as a noun. The term verbal indicates that a gerund, like the other two kinds of verbals, is based on a verb and therefore expresses action or a state of being. However, since a gerund functions as a noun, it occupies some positions in a sentence that a noun ordinarily would, for example: subject, direct object, subject complement, and object of preposition.

stand as used above is intransitive, so, "looking at her" can be said to a subject complement. Verbs used to describe body positions are often followed by a subject complement like that or like the ones below The subject complements are gerundial phrases.

  • They sat staring at the moon.
  • She lay dozing in the hammock.
  • He knelt praying for hours.

Introductory participial phrases:

  • Walking the dog, she breathed the fresh air.

Those are generally set off by commas, yes. However, usually, they serve to clarify or strengthen the main clause. I would prefer to see something like this:

  • Enjoying the fresh air, she walked the dog for two hours.

There, breathing the fresh air describes her, whereas "walking the dog" doesn't seem to. It's grammatically fine, but semantically a bit odd.

introductory participial phrase

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Participle clauses used as adverbs of manner are a particular category. they do have adverbial meaning and function, but they do not always meet all the aspects of the normal behaviour of an ordinary adverb of manner. An interesting article, The Use of Participles and Gerunds expresses my view on the matter. On p. 44 the author writes:

Present participles used to express manner/accompaniment (or attending circumstances). A participial phrase showing accompaniment cannot well be converted into an adverbial clause. But beyond doubt, it has an adverbial function, and can be regarded as an adverb of manner, or of attending circumstances, so to speak. We usually use a participle to indicate manner after such verbs as arrive, come, go, leave, lie, run, sit, and stand, etc. For example:

  • The whole family stood waving in the road. (accompaniment)

English resources names this use more simply:

The present participle after verbs of movement & position *She came running towards me.

Yet it does look like your sentence fits this description as well:

When two actions occur at the same time, and are done by the same person or thing, we can use a present participle to describe one of them. When one action follows very quickly after another done by the same person or thing, we can express the first action with a present participle.

  • They went laughing out into the snow. = They laughed as they went out into the snow.

So your sentence

he stood looking at her …

does show simultaneity of action and manner: He was looking at her as he stood/he stood while looking at her/ he did not simply stand, he stood looking...

It is however clear to me that whatever category you put it in, it remains an adverbial.

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  • For it to be adverbial, it would have to qualify how he stood, and it doesn't. There is nothing adverbial about it at all. He stood awkwardly looking at her. Awkwardly is adverbial.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 21:21
  • Your list of verbs that includes stand are inaccurate. "arrive, come, go, leave, lie, run, sit, and stand" cannot all be following by verb+ing. stand, sit, kneel and lie, can.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 21:27
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The present participle phrase[1] "looking at her" may be understood in two different ways:

  1. As a predicative expression: "Looking at her" may function as a predicate adjective, modifying the subject "he". The verb "stood" would be understood as copular in this case.

  2. As a modifier of the verb: "Looking at her" may function adverbially, modifying the verb "stood" and answering the question "how" or "in what manner".

The same reasoning can certainly be applied to past participle phrases. For example:

He stood there, astonished by how she appeared.

Whether a comma should be included usually depends on meaning. Here is an example that I think works better without one:

My guests arrived exhausted from their long journey.

[1] I prefer to call these constructions "phrases", not "clauses". Terminology varies for many of these concepts.

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  • "He stood looking at her", cannot be an adjective. stand is intransitive and "looking at her" does not modify he. "Looking at her was something he liked to do." Gerund noun phrase.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 21:22
  • @Lambie I guess we disagree. I believe that "looking at her" does, indeed, modify "he". Commented Dec 23, 2021 at 22:50

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