I'm so confused with this example.

they saw the monkey climbing over the fence.

First I interpreted this like number 1 below and then, that sentence came to me differently later like number 2.

1.They saw the monkey and it was climbing over the fence somewhere.

2.They were climbing over the fence in front of them while they saw a monkey somewhere.

Which interpretation is right?

and how can I cope with such an ambiguousness?

  • @Cardinal. The participial clause is postmodifying the noun. The meaning is similar to that of the relative "the monkey who/which/that was jumping over the fence". Most non-finite clauses as postmodifiers of nouns have meanings similar to relatives, though they are not actually relative clauses, but participial clauses, since the syntax is different.
    – BillJ
    Jun 21, 2016 at 7:52

3 Answers 3


I understood it as your 1.
I think I found an explanation here.

After verbs of perception (see, watch, hear, listen, feel, smell, notice, observe etc.), the present participle expresses an action that continues over a period of time, regardless of whether we perceive the whole action or only part of it:

  • I felt the ground shaking for about half a minute.
    (I felt that the ground was shaking.)
  • I saw the burglar climbing over the fence.
    (I saw it as the burglar was climbing over the fence.)
  • I heard my brother singing in the bathroom.
    (I heard my brother as he was singing in the bathroom.)

If we want to emphasise that the action is completed, we use the bare infinitive:

  • I felt the ground shake once.
    (I felt it as the ground shook once.)
  • It's really a good thing to add sources. (+1)
    – shin
    Jun 21, 2016 at 7:19
  • The meaning is similar to They saw a monkey who was climbing over the fence. All gerund-participial clauses as postmodifiers of nouns have meanings similar to relative clauses.
    – BillJ
    Jun 21, 2016 at 8:04

There's no ambiguity in this construction ( object+ present participle ), because the participle here stands after the noun, which it denotes (reduced relative clause ). Thus, the first interpretation is correct. The monkey was climbing

In order to express the second variant you should say: Climbing over the fence, they saw a monkey.

  • In the second sentence, yes. I just wanted to show how it can be transformed. to express *they were climbing *. But the real meaning is the first.
    – V.V.
    Jun 21, 2016 at 8:09
  • @BillJ, where did you disappear with your comment?
    – V.V.
    Jun 21, 2016 at 8:13
  • Then if comma comes after the monkey, would it change the meaning(who acts)? or not?
    – JBL
    Jul 2, 2016 at 6:24
  • Adverbial participle clauses are normally put at the beginning of the sentence. In this case it's necessary to avoid ambiguity. They are sometimes put after main clauses. ( My wife had a talk with Jane, explaining the problem.) You can use a conjunction + participle clause "while climbing over the fence" as well.
    – V.V.
    Jul 3, 2016 at 15:03

The first interpretation is right.

The monkey was climbing over the fence and they saw it.

For your second interpretation this would be put as: they saw the monkey while climbing over the fence.


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