I was reading a text on archaeology came across with:

Often these objects lie buried in the ground, so our image of the archaeologist is of a scientist who is always digging.

I think buried in the ground is a adjectival phrase. But I guess the author tries to make point of objects that lied beneath the earth. Could I have your comments ? Thanks.

2 Answers 2


I apologize for raising the tiresome adverbial controversy again; but I think that the traditional analysis of this phrase presented in BobRodes' answer is wrong on just about every point.

  1. The head of this phrase is buried, a 'past/passive participle'. The two roles played simultaneously by participles of this sort are verb and adjective, not verb and adverb.

  2. It's hard to measure how verbish any given participle is; but I'd say this one is externally almost completely deverbal (I'll come back to that externally later). BobRodes offers a paraphrase "Often these objects are buried in the ground" and suggests that this implies a passivization of the action of burying. I accept the paraphrase wholeheartedly; but I reject the implication.

    A passive reading implies a generic present reading, "These things are repeatedly buried in the ground at present"; and that, in turn, imputes dynamicity and indeed agency to the repeated event: "People at present frequently bury these things in the ground". (I suppose we could explain away the present tense by arguing that these things have been buried, but I think this goes beyond what is implied here: we have no way of telling whether 'these things' are a deliberately buried hoard of hacksilver or potsherds which have sunk by their own weight into the muck at the bottom of dried-up riverbed.)

    But there's no action here, performed either by or upon these things. In "these objects are buried", are is not a passive auxiliary but an ordinary copula, and we are dealing not with a recurrent event but with a widespread current state: the location of these things.

  3. I find it impossible to conceive how this state, this location, can be understood to 'modify' the verb lie any more than it 'modifies' the verb BE in the paraphrase. Syntactically, of course, the phrase is a dependent of the verb lie. But so is everything else in the sentence except lie itself; and I don't suppose anybody would argue that these things 'modifies' lie. Dependent ≠ modifier.

    As it is used here, lie itself is stative; we're not talking about these things performing an action. We cannot paraphrase what is said with these things lie down buried in the ground, much less that they lie down 'buriedly' in the ground or buried-in-the-groundly.

    To my mind, indeed, lie here is very little more than that same ordinary copula; it's just accreted a sort of postural patina. And the copula, notoriously, is a syntactic device for linking a state or quality or identity to . . .

  4. . . . the subject. Whatever their syntactic role, buried and in the ground are locations attributed to these things (as is the recumbent posture signified by the semantic component of lie).

    They're adjectivals.

    Specifically, they're adjectival predicate complements attributed to the subject, these things.

  5. "But wait!" I hear you cry. "Perhaps ... maybe ... there's a remote possibility that buried is as you say an adjective; but in the ground is beyond question a preposition phrase modifying buried. And what modifies an adjective is an adverb. Ha! Put that in your modernist not-a-pipe and smoke it!"

    No. I freely concede that in the ground is a dependent of buried; but again, dependent modifier. Remember that throwaway remark I made about buried being "externally almost completely deverbal"? Outside the phrase, buried acts as an adjectival; within the phrase, however, it can (and here does) act as a verb. (That's why it's called a 'participle': because it 'participates' in multiple roles.)

    Among other verbish roles a participle can participate in is taking the arguments of a verb; and one of the arguments of the verb bury is a locative preposition phrase: Who's buried in Grant's tomb? Bury me beneath the willow. Once more, that PP doesn't 'modify' the verb: it's not a property of the action, it's the goal of the action, and when the action is perfected it designates the location of the body. It's a property of the patient—of the object when the verb is cast in the active voice, of the subject when the verb is cast in the passive voice.

    In the ground is an adjectival predicate complement imputed to the subject.

    And what's the subject of the passive participle buried?

    These things.


  • Thanks, As I understood form your answer, we have : " these objects buried in the ground lie " . It sounds odd ? Why the author didn't use a simple structure ?
    – Cardinal
    Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 8:53
  • @Cardinal It's just as complicated wherever you put buried in the ground. And lie,as I said, is a copula; it demands a complement. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 10:47
  • @StoneyB This is very interesting, and you have clearly given it a great deal more thought than I have. I'll restrict my responses to 2 and 3. The use of present tense in the sentence does indeed undermine the position that it's passive voice, since the burying takes place at another time. (On the other hand, if something is buried, something buried it, and whether it was a human hand or simple gravity or some cataclysm doesn't strike me as a relevant distinction. Nevertheless, on second look that does appear to go beyond what's implied.) ...
    – BobRodes
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 1:54
  • @BobRodes Hmm ... I think to say that the adjective must imply agency because it derives from an agentive verb is an instance of the etymological fallacy. What, for instance, is the agent of *The answer is buried in the depths of time"? Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 2:08
  • ... As for 3, I don't quite understand your analysis, either. How is it different from, say, "I stood buried up to the knees in cement" or "I fell sideways into the water?" Do you analyze these sentences in the same way? It seems there is a whole class of similar stuff.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 2:11

This is an interesting phrase, which you can actually analyze in two different ways.

First, buried in the ground is an adverbial phrase. It modifies the verb lie (how do the objects lie?), not the noun objects. (Adjectives modify nouns, adverbs modify everything else.)

Next, suppose we change the sentence to this:

Often, these objects are buried in the ground...

In this case, are buried is a verb in the passive voice, and in the ground is an adverbial phrase modifying buried. As you can see, this doesn't change the meaning of the sentence much at all, so one could also argue that lie is used as an alternative auxiliary verb (an alternative to are) for the passive voice.

The first analysis is simpler, but the second one is interesting, as it points out that buried is used in much the same way that verbs are used in the passive voice--in the passive voice, the subject receives the action rather than performing it. The first analysis emphasizes the fact that the subject ("these objects") performs the action of lying, whereas the second analysis emphasizes the fact that the subject receives the action of being buried.

  • 1
    +1 Good answer. I disagree with almost everything in it, but it's still a good answer. Commented Aug 22, 2015 at 1:39

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