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I am trying to figure out the grammatical structure of the following sentence:

There is no dinosaur skin left to study.

This is what I have:

There is -> (what?) -> no skin -> (which/what?) -> left -> (for what?) -> (to study).

What is the word left (in a grammatical sense)? It's definitely not acting as a verb here.

3 Answers 3

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There is no dinosaur skin left to study

The types of word in the sentence are:

  • there, pronoun
  • is auxiliary verb
  • no determiner *
  • dinosaur noun
  • skin noun,
  • left adjective
  • to [very contentious word] 'subordinator'
  • study verb, infinitive

[*Determiners are words like: a, the, this, that, my, your, no, one, two.]

This sentence is an example of an existential construction.

The subject of the sentence is [there], the predicate is [is no dinosaur skin left to study]. The predicate consists of the auxiliary verb [is] and two complements, which are the noun phrase [no dinosaur skin to study] and the adjective [left]. Further below I will show what has happened to this noun phrase and why it has broken into two sections.

The noun phrase can be represented like this:

  • [[no][dinosaur skin to study]]

It has an external modifier, the determiner [no], and an 'inner noun phrase', sometimes called a nominal: [dinosaur skin to study]. The nominal, and indeed the whole noun phrase is headed by the noun [skin]. [Skin] is being premodified by another noun [dinosaur], giving us the compound noun [dinosaur skin]. The noun has a post-head modifier, the infinitival clause [to study]. Depending on which grammar you read, this could have different structures. In CaGEL, the analysis would be that the head of the clause is the verb [study]. This is marked by the subordinator [to].

In this sentence we see something called 'extraposition from noun phrase movement. Sometimes, if a noun phrase is very 'heavy', if it is very long, we can move part of it to the end of the sentence. We could build the sentence like this:

  • There is no dinosaur skin to study left.

But this is a little bit difficult to understand, because we have to wait a long time to hear the second complement left. We can move that section to study 'out of the noun phrase and put it at the end of the sentence. (Extra in extraposition means 'out; position means something like putting). This gives us the Original Poster's example:

  • There is no dinosaur skin left to study.

The CaGEL is the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston & Pullum, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hope this is helpful!

[[Analysis Note: The grammatical structure of this sentence might be a little ambiguous. This is an existential construction. For the purposes of this analysis I have taken the non-existential version of this sentence to be: [No dinosaur skin to study was left]. The following alternative is not felicitous: [* No dinosaur skin left was to study] (wrong). This last fact accounts for the extraposition analysis. However, there is always: [No dinosaur skin was left to study]. The most natural reading of this sentence, does not have the same meaning as the existential counterpart.]]

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  • Why don't we say "*There's no left food"?
    – TimR
    Nov 12, 2014 at 12:33
  • Wow! That's made an impression on me! Nov 12, 2014 at 12:37
  • How about "There's no real difference"?
    – TimR
    Nov 12, 2014 at 12:57
  • @TRomano What about it? 'Is' only has one complement there, the noun phrase 'no real difference'. There's nothing to move any of the noun phrase past ... :) Does that make sense? Nov 12, 2014 at 12:58
  • @TRomano Sorry just realised this :-/ EDIT: because the 'nominal', food, is only one word long! The noun phrase is of course two words: no food. With extraposition from noun phrase movement, the main section of the noun phrase which includes the head noun stays in the normal position - the rest of it moves to the end of the senetence. But there is no rest of the noun phrase to move with the single word food! :) Nov 12, 2014 at 13:21
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The past participle of leave - left - can be used in a special way, to mean 'remaining', 'not used, 'still there'.

Michael Swan (2005.320), Practical English Usage.

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    Could you give a link to what grammatical structure it is? Nov 12, 2014 at 8:59
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Regarding your particular concern, you are definitely precise, the word left doesn’t function as a verb.

In your context left functions as an adjective. It modifies (describes) the noun skin.

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  • Then what is really confusing, is word order for that particular case: left to study follows noun, instead of preceding it. Nov 12, 2014 at 11:35
  • Is there a name for grammatical construction: adjective derived from verb? Nov 12, 2014 at 11:36
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    Usually adjectives are placed before the nouns they modify, yet there are exceptions: see postpositive adjectives Nov 12, 2014 at 11:47

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