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I am trying to determine the function of the participle phrase in the following sentence:

When they play, they switch back and forth, alternating their positions until the game ends.

Is the participle phrase that begins with alternating functioning as an adverbial participle modifying switch or an adjectival participle modifying they?

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  • I believe it modifies they. A similar example: He circled the room, tapping his chin until it came to him. – Damkerng T. Mar 20 '15 at 9:26
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    @DamkerngT. The thing about this particular sentence that strikes me as odd (or interesting?) is that the participle phrase is almost acting like an appositive. It seems like it's restating the action of the main clause rather than adding a separate, simultaneously occurring action. – pyobum Mar 20 '15 at 9:28
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    Hmm... It's probably about the verb switch. The way I read it, this switch is a long process (I imagine they keep switching until the game ends), and thus the switching and alternating happen simultaneously. I'm not sure about your source, but the sentence reminds me of a scene from Ender's Game. – Damkerng T. Mar 20 '15 at 9:31
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To my mind this is a case where the traditional-grammar notion of "adjectival" and "adverbial" phrases breaks down.

What you have here is at bottom two clauses describing the same action:

they switch back and forth
[they] alternate their positions

As pyobum very acutely remarks, the second clause

"is almost acting as an appositive [...] restating the action of the main clause rather than adding a separate, simultaneously occurring action."

Note how in quoting pyobum I have combined the original two independent clauses into a single sentence using the same literary device as your example sentence: I cast the finite verb in the second clause ('s restating) as a participle (bare restating) and just tack it on at the end. The non-finite verbform and the fact that the it "borrows" its subject from the head clause marks the second clause as subordinate. But it doesn't "modify" any particular element in the first clause: if it "modifies" anything it modifies the whole first clause.

If you need a name for it here's one I just made up: it's a recapitulatory supplement.

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