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1 I saw a reading man in the room.

2 I saw a man reading in the room.

How do they differ? Does the first one mean that the person seen is always reading and the second means that the man was reading only then?

2 Answers 2

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[noun] [adjective]

This describes an action in the moment it happens. It communicates that you saw a [noun], and that you saw it doing a specific thing.

I heard a dog barking I saw a man running from police I noticed three cars racing down the street

[adjective] [noun]

The meaning here can be different, if a different interpretation exists. The adjective describes a frequent activity for the noun. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that the activity is being engaged in right now.

In other words, it communicates that you saw a specific type of [noun], but you did not specify what the [noun] was doing.

I saw a racing car on the beach

A "racing car" is a specific kind of car. It does not have to be racing all the time. It could've been parked on the beach.

He is in the reading room

The reading room is a room intended for reading, but that doesn't mean that "he" is currently reading right now.

However...

If there is no different interpretation for [adjective] [noun], then the same meaning from [noun] [adjective] can be inferred.

I saw a speeding car
I saw a car speeding

A "speeding car" isn't a known type of car in the same sense that a "racing car" is. Therefore, it means the same as the [noun] [adjective] variant

I saw a barking dog
I saw a dog barking

Hypothesis: there are two different types of dog. Some breeds are able to bark. Other breeds do not. With this hypothesis, a "barking dog" would be its own thing (like a "racing car"). It would refer to a dog of a breed that is able to bark.

This isn't reality, though. That concept does not exist. Therefore, the two sentences mean the same thing.

I saw a hunting dog
I saw a dog hunting

However, change the example from "barking" to "hunting", and suddenly the outcome changes too.

A "hunting dog" can be interpreted as a dog breed that is commonly used for hunting (e.g. beagle, retriever, ...), and now the two sentences no longer mean the same thing.

The first sentence communicates that you saw a specific type of dog, but you did not specify what it was doing.
The second sentence communicates that you saw an unspecified dog, and that you saw it doing a specific thing.

However... (2)

Sometimes, when [adjective] [noun] does not have a different meaning, that doesn't always mean that it sounds idiomatically equivalent to [noun] [adjective].

I saw a reading man in the room.

This sounds grating to my ears. I'm not able to pinpoint exactly why this is okay for "speeding car" and not "reading man", but it is. For "reading man" is seems to very much imply that it is a specific type of man, but this interpretation doesn't exist, and therefore it is confusing.

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  • @user1425 This is a very comprehensively incorrect answer. 'A man reading' is not a noun followed by an adjective. 'Reading' is a verb being used intransitively. Remember you could say "a man reading a book", because 'reading' can be a transitive verb. An adjective does not hold an object.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 17:18
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When you put a verb before the noun it acts as an adjective.

  • In example 1, you are describing the man as "a reading man".
  • In example 2, you saw a man and 'reading' is the action he is carrying out.

There may be some contexts where it doesn't matter too much, for example "I saw a car speeding" is pretty much interchangeable with "I saw a speeding car". However, 'a reading man' just doesn't sound idiomatic to a native speaker. What is a reading man? A man who always reads? A man who is well-read? It doesn't have an idiomatic meaning.

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  • I am afraid the problem is that it makes sense, that's why it's confusing.
    – user1425
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 10:03
  • So, does it mean that some participles WORK FINE (such as speeding) while OTHERS don't?
    – user1425
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 10:09
  • @user1425: No. Not "some particles" - some combinations. You wouldn't necessarily be understood if you said I saw a speeding man on the road. A speeding car works because "speeding" is one of a relatively limited number of adjectives that can attach to "car" with a clear-cut meaning, regardless of the noun+adj or adj+noun sequence. But there's a difference between seeing a racing car and seeing a car racing, because the former has a special idiomatic meaning. Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 10:16
  • I am walking along a street and come across a child who is hopping. Which one is correct: I see a child hopping. OR I see a hopping child.
    – user1425
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 11:08
  • @user1425 Some adjective and noun combinations are recognisable as compound nouns. For example, a 'spinning top' is the name of a child's toy. If you didn't know what that was you'd wonder what kind of 'top' the person meant and why is it spinning. In the case of your example it sounds like 'reading man' should be something but it isn't, and that just causes confusion. If someone asked you "what do you mean by a 'reading man'?" you'd have to answer "a man that is reading"! Anyway, I don't think you mean to ascribe an adjective to the man - you want to mention his action, so use it as a verb.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Apr 26, 2023 at 16:03

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