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My brother laughed when his sister burped at the dinner table, a common occurrence when root beer was served.

What does the phrase in bold modify above? And what is called?

To my mind, burping is the common occurrence, so does the phrase in bold modify "when his sister ... served"? But if so, what type of phrase is it, i.e. the common occurrence?

Is it an appositive phrase because the phrase might be paraphrased into the following?

His sister burping at the dinner table, a common occurrence when root beer was served, my brother laughed, .

  • No, it's not an appositive noun phrase. Items like the NP in your example are called 'supplements'. Supplements are prosodically detached, i.e. set off from the rest of the clause by an intonational phrase boundary, and normally by a comma in writing. They are elements that are not integrated into the structure of the phrase or clause. Supplements are not modifiers; rather, they have an 'anchor' which they refer to; in this case the anchor would be the preceding subordinate when clause. – BillJ Jun 22 '16 at 10:14
  • I came across my post again by accident. Do you think supplements are what we call absolute phrases? If not, would you refer me to reference about supplements, preferably I could check online. – learner May 31 '17 at 9:36
  • Sometimes, but less often. Only those supplements that have subjects are absolutes, for example "His hands gripping the door, he screamed out loud" / "This done, she walked off without another word". But those without subjects are not, for example "Born in Aberdeen, Sue had never been further south than Edinburgh" / "Realising the danger, he ran like hell!". – BillJ May 31 '17 at 9:59
  • You can get some info here: link – BillJ May 31 '17 at 10:05
  • Thanks for the terminology, supplements. Rereading your first comment, I see that you are using linguistic terminology. I cannot generalize but absolute phrases are modifiers in traditional grammar. They modify the whole sentence. I see two schools here. For the time being I'll stick to traditional grammar. Maybe later, I'll move into the other camp cause I like Linguistics. Cont. --P.S. the book, it is too technical, and I would appreciate practical and accessible references. – learner May 31 '17 at 13:21
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People stand when they sing their national anthem, a common occurrence at sporting events.

Much as you do, I understand "a common occurrence at sporting events" to be disjunct, tacked on as an afterthought, apposite the idea lurking nominally in the when-clause, which we can express as "they->people singing their national anthem".

Related is the use of this:

People stand when they sing their national anthem. This is a common occurrence at sporting events.

although "this" seems to me to encompass the entire idea "People stand when they sing their national anthem" not just the idea expressed in the when-clause.

A teacher would probably put a checkmark near "This" with the marginal comment "unclear antecedent".

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