By the time he was allowed (1) out of his cupboard again, the summer holidays had started and Dudley had already broken his new video camera, crashed his remote control airplane, and, first time (2) out on his racing bike, knocked down old Mrs. Figg as she crossed Privet Drive on her crutches. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Do the highlighted phrases take roles of object and adjunct (adjective role) as noun phrases or as prepositional phrases; or (1) ‘out’ is an adjective and select prepositional phrase and they all becomes an direct object, (2) ‘out’ is an adjective and select prepositional phrase and they all becomes an post-modifier?

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    Your questions get harder and harder! :-) Mar 9, 2013 at 2:50
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    In both cases, the sentences are elided: [1] By the time he was allowed to come out of his cupboard again... [2] first time he went out on his racing bike... The words in bold font have been elided.
    – user264
    Mar 9, 2013 at 3:07
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    @BillFranke The perils of grammar! We all know exactly what it means; but we have three different ideas (all correct) of how it means it. I love this language. Mar 9, 2013 at 3:09
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    @StoneyB: Yes, & this is one of the reasons I've said in past posts that grammar is trivial: in this case, it's a matter of what linguistic theory one's using. Because we know what it means & how to use the structure, it's not necessary to be able to explain how it means it, except for a grammar or linguistics test. This kind of question is too high-level for ELL: it belongs on EL&U because it requires a professional linguist to explain it. The terminology doesn't turn me on, but I'm happy to talk about the meaning without getting into the mechanisms of that meaning.
    – user264
    Mar 9, 2013 at 3:25
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    @Bill, StoneyB: I think the problem with this level of question is ELL answers are never going to standardise on one coherent set of analytical approaches or terminology, so in the end I'm not sure they're particularly useful here. Mar 9, 2013 at 3:37

2 Answers 2

  1. This prepositional phrase is, I think, best treated as a Subject(he)-related complement of the verb allow, which in this context means approximately allow to go; unpackage the passive form and it becomes an Object-related complement

    [They] allowed him out of his cupboard ... [out of his cupboard] is where they allowed him to go, so it is where he is located at the end of the clause.

  2. This is a little ambiguous. I'd read it as

    a) the fixed phrase first time out, meaning approximately ‘the first occasion on which one does or attempts something’; this is employed here as an adjunct of time; PLUS
    b) on his racing bike which modifies first time out, defining the something he attempted as riding his bike.

    Together, then, they constitute an adjunct to the clause knocked down Mrs. Figg, &c, defining it as occurring on the first occasion (that summer) when Dudley rode his bike.


Those prepositions are used as adverbs, which happens now and then with prepositions. You can say father is out, to mean "father is [at some place outside the house]", and father is in, to mean "father is [inside the house]". The prepositional phrase of his cupboard then depends on and modifies the adverb out. As to on his racing-bike, that could either modify out as above, or it could be analysed as a separate, parallel adverbial phrase modifying knocked down.

As an alternative, you could treat out of as a phrasal preposition, i.e. a phrase that functions as a preposition. This is not possible for out on.

Many other prepositions can be used adverbially as well, as in I am behind, it's over, she fell down... There is a theory that all prepositions were originally adverbs, in Proto-Indo-European.

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