1

I have come across these sentences written in an English blog.

The doctor, living in this house before us, moved to Australia.

The doctors, attending a conference on malaria, urged governments to act.

These sentences are meant to mean:

The doctor lived in this house before us and then she moved to Australia.

The doctors attended a conference on malaria and then urged governments to act.

Having read these sentences, I got puzzled because I find them ambiguous. For example, if we leave "before us" from the first sentence, we will get:

The doctor, living in this house, moved to Australia.

Now it's not clear either she still lives in this house or she lived there ONLY in the past.

The same problem with the second sentence: It's not clear whether the doctors are still at the conference or they were at the conference.

Wouldn't it be better to say the following?

The doctor, who lived in this house before us, moved to Australia.

The doctors, who attended a conference on malaria, urged governments to act.

Do you find these sentences ambiguous and is it really OK to use the present participle in this case to denote a past action?

  • 2
    I think the sentences should be understood as "The doctor, who was living in this house before us, moved to Australia." and "The doctors, who were attending a conference on malaria, urged governments to act." – kiamlaluno Jun 5 '13 at 15:12
  • You could say "Watching the street from his room, she was able to see when I returned home." – kiamlaluno Jun 5 '13 at 15:19
3

The common names for the participles are misleading. Both are non-finite forms—that is, they have no tense.

So there’s no inherent difficulty in point of time reference with these sentences. The participle phrases are parsed to mean “living at the time” or “while living* and “attending at the time” or “while attending”. The sense is not that two consecutive actions occurred but that the action of the main clause occurred during the action of the participle phrases.

There is however a difficulty with the punctuation of the phrase in the first sentence. A participle phrase which follows a noun directly, without a comma, is taken to modify the noun, and bears the same sense as a restrictive relative clause. But a participle phrase set off by commas is usually parsed in the while sense: the phrase is taken to modify the verb (or the entire sentence) rather than the preceding noun. This is why the participle phrases here can, as Kiamlaluno points out, be moved to the heads of their sentences:

[While they were] attending a conference on malaria, the doctors urged governments to act.

During a conference is exactly when you would expect a professional group to issue a public message.

But in the first sentence, this sets up a very odd semantic (not grammatical) situation:

[While he was] living in the house before us, the doctor moved to Australia.

The doctor is said to have moved while he was living in the house! That is clearly nonsensical. What should have been written is

The doctor living in the house before us moved to Australia, with no commas.

That would compel the acceptable sense

The doctor who was living in the house before us moved to Australia.

  • Did you mean to write this sentence the other way around "but that the action of the main clause occurred during the action of the participle phrases"? - "but that the action of the participle phrases occurred during the action of the main clause" – user1425 Jun 7 '13 at 9:52
  • @user1425 No: While I was PARTICIPLing, I MAINVERBed. The MAINVERB occupied only part of the time I was PARTICIPLing. – StoneyB Jun 7 '13 at 10:55
  • OK. But there is no time reference attached to the participle on its own, as you said, as it is non-finite, hence, it can be placed in time only with the help of the main verb. Or am I missing the point? – user1425 Jun 7 '13 at 11:11
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You could rephrase the second sentence as follows:

Attending a conference on malaria, the doctors urged governments to act.

A participial phrase like that doesn't necessarily modify a phrase that describes something happening in the present; It could be also modify a phrase that describes something happened in the past.

Taking the ferry across the harbor, I saw the Statue of Liberty come into view.

The doctors, taking the ferry across the harbor, saw the Statue of Liberty come into view.

The doctors, attending a conference on malaria, urged governments to act.

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