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"Like I said, Yeh'd be mad ter try an' rob it," said Hagrid (to Harry). A pair of goblins bowed them (Harry and Hagrid) through the silver doors and they were in a vast marble hall.
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Is the prepositional phrase (through the silver doors) modifying the verb bowed, or the object them?

  • If the sentence can be simplified to “A pair of goblins bowed through the silver doors” then the proposition phrase is modifying the verb bowed. However, I’m sort of confused with the word them that’s coming right after the verb. What’s it doing in the sentence? I don’t understand ‘bowed them’. – EnglishLearner Apr 5 '13 at 13:00
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    As the verb is used nowadays, I could not say "The goblins bowed them through the doors." – kiamlaluno Apr 5 '13 at 13:51
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    It's kind of like "waved them through", except instead of waving, they're bowing. – snailboat Apr 5 '13 at 15:25
  • Fascinating sentence. I've supplied a tentative answer, but I'd really like to see what @JohnLawler has to say about it. – StoneyB Apr 5 '13 at 16:05
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This is complicated both syntactically and semantically, because the verb bow, which normally does not take a direct object in Present-Day English, may be understood in two different senses here:

  1. The attendant goblins deferentially permitted them to pass through the doors.
  2. The attendant goblins exhibited deference as they passed through the doors.

(I think, by the way, that this ambiguity is deliberate; that's exactly how bank guards are supposed to comport themselves.)

It seems to me that through the doors doesn't directly modify any of the terms actually present in the sentence but is a component of a clause of which the omitted pass (or something like it) is the implicit verb. Equally, however, it seems to me that through the doors is not merely a modifier of that omitted verb but its complement: specifically, a subject-related complement which defines the final position of Hagrid and Harry.

ADDED:
snailplane puts forward an analysis under which them and through the doors are arguments required by the verb bow. In those terms the analysis is incontrovertible.

EnglishLearner then asks me whether, as snailplane also suggests, the verb can be used "transitively" and has in this case a "direct object". Here I must dissent from snailplane's analysis on that grounds that 1) the use of transitive and direct object illegitimately imports terms proper to one sort of analysis into amother sort of analysis in which they are no longer proper; and 2) regardless of the syntactic role played by them, it is not semantically a direct object but an indirect object.

If you want to talk about how this sentence is put together, snailplane's "argumentative" analysis is probably better than mine. If you want to talk about how this sentence means, I think mine is better.

In either case, I think transitivity and direct object are best left out of the discussion. Both terms are much more complicated than can be conveniently addressed here.

  • So, could I understand that “them through the silver doors” as a clause that has not the verb, so called, a small clause? – Listenever Apr 5 '13 at 16:13
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    @Listenever That's my feeling; I don't see a better way to understand it. But as I say above, I'd really like to see a linguist's take on it. – StoneyB Apr 5 '13 at 16:25
  • do you disagree with @snailplane when he said the verb bowed can be used transitively and in this case, it has a direct object? – EnglishLearner Apr 5 '13 at 20:38
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    @EnglishLearner Just for future reference, I am not a he :-) – snailboat Apr 5 '13 at 20:53
  • @EnglishLearner See my Addition – StoneyB Apr 7 '13 at 2:01
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That sentence is similar to "I saw you through the window.": Through the window modifies saw, not you. In your case, through the silver doors modifies the verb.

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