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I came across this sentence in the novel "The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle" written by Huge Lofting:

All of a sudden the Doctor looked up sharply at me, a wonderful smile of delighted understanding spreading over his face.

I couldn't the structure of this clause "a wonderful smile of delighted understanding spreading over his face." Where is a verb?

Could you teach me the structure of this clause?

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    You need to tell us where you came across this sentence. Different contexts have different rules. Is a quotation? A title? A line from a poem or song? A blog post? A picture caption? (As a side note, it looks to me like it should either say "spread" instead of "spreading", or else it's missing the word "was", but without more information I can only take guesses, with a consternated scowl of frustrated confusion spreading over my face.) – J.R. Apr 25 '16 at 18:31
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    Why do you call that "a sentence" when it's only half a sentence? All of a sudden the Doctor looked up sharply at me, a wonderful smile of delighted understanding spreading over his face. – J.R. Apr 25 '16 at 18:37
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    Always, always, always include more context than one sentence if reasonably possible, and always include a link to anything you quote. – Alan Carmack Apr 25 '16 at 18:37
  • I thought my question got through without the phrase "All of a sudden the Doctor looked up sharply at me". I don't know how long I should write the context. I am learning English now. – Yuuichi Tam Apr 25 '16 at 18:42
  • Your question is not clear. You need to write at least three or more sentences from the book for us to understand it and write an answer. You seem to have a problem telling a sentence from a fragment. A sentence starts with a capital letter after a previous period , question mark, exclamation mark and ends with one of them. – user24743 Apr 25 '16 at 19:02
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It is not a sentence but an absolute participle clause—that is, a subordinate participle clause which is only loosely attached to the main clause.

All of a sudden the Doctor looked up sharply at me, a wonderful smile of delighted understanding spreading over his face.

This is equivalent to saying ". . . the Doctor looked up sharply at me, and as he did so a wonderful smile of delighted understanding spread over his face."

You may learn more about clauses of this sort by reading questions (and their answers!) tagged .

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  • Thank you for your answer. I could your sentence understand but why does this writer the word "spreading" instead of "spread"? – Yuuichi Tam Apr 25 '16 at 18:54
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    @YuuichiTam The simple past form spread has a "perfective" sense: we see the event it names as a complete whole. If Lofting had said "...looked up sharply and a wonderful smile spread over his face" we would understand the look and the smile to be consecutive events. The present participle or -ing form has an "imperfective" sense--that is, we see the event which it names as occurring over time throughout the immediate timeframe: the Doctor smiles while he looks up. – StoneyB on hiatus Apr 25 '16 at 19:02
  • Thus the clause has a verb (spreading) but it is a non-finite verb. – Alan Carmack Apr 25 '16 at 20:23
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I think the full clause would have been like this: "(With) a wonderful smile of delighted understanding (which was) spreading over his face. It is possible to delete the relative pronoun (which) and to be verb (was) in some relative clauses (or as called adjective clauses). So the clause has a verb, although deleted, but it is implyed.☺

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  • Thank you for your answer. I learned absolute participial construction for the first time in this sentence. – Yuuichi Tam Apr 26 '16 at 3:15
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The sentence could also be changed to say:

..., (while) a wonderful smile of delighted understanding (was) spreading over his face

It is just a simple clause (not a full sentence). A sentence is a clause, but a clause is not always a sentence.

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