1. The bowl was lifted without spilling its contents.

What do you think is the understood subject of "spilling"?
a. The bowl didn't spill its contents.
b. The person who lifted it didn't spill its contents.

Do I need to revise the sentence as:

  1. The bowl was lifted without its contents being spilled.
  • b) seems correct
    – Sam
    Jun 28, 2023 at 16:17
  • 1
    Technically, I think a) is the correct reading, but I'm having trouble seeing how it makes any difference in this context.
    – stangdon
    Jun 28, 2023 at 16:28
  • The bowl could have been lifted by something other than a person, so interpretation (b) is just one possible scenario. But I don't think it's really meaningful to ask who or what didn't spill the bowl contents - to me, that's an adverbial element attaching to the act of lifting. That's howsoever the action came to pass, with or without any meaningful kind of identifiable agent doing the lifting (perhaps it "self-levitated" :) Jun 28, 2023 at 18:06

2 Answers 2


The bowl is the subject. It can be unambiguously reworded like this:

The bowl was lifted without it spilling its contents.

This sentence is identical in meaning, and it makes clear that the subject of "spill" is the bowl itself.

It would be impossible to have the unnamed person be the subject of "spill". Let's change the sentence a bit to make that clear:

The bowl was carried without tripping.

The first read of this sentence is that the bowl didn't trip, but a bowl cannot trip, so it can only refer to the person lifting the bowl. With that reading, "tripping" becomes a noun referring to the concept of tripping, rather than a verb with a subject, along the lines of this version:

The bowl was carried without any tripping happening.

It cannot be understood this way:

The bowl was carried without him/her tripping.

There is no understood antecedent for "him/her", so it doesn't make sense.


You are right that there has to be an understood subject, since the -ing clause has no explicit subject.

Note that the passive clause also has an understood agent. The agent isn't made explicit by a "by-phrase".

We understand, from context that the subject of the -ing clause is the same as the agent in the passive, clause, that is "the person lifting the bowl". - I.e. (b)

It is also acceptable to understand the subject to be "the bowl" in a labile construction "The bowl spilled" (analogous to "the door opened")

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