Hi, there ~

If I want to express that "he has come back and now he is on the phone;the person he is talking to is his mom" can I say:

He is back on the phone talking to his mother.

If it works,how do you parse this sentence? (the predicative is very complicated.)

Original Post

Hi, Robby Zhu,

As you may know, there are different possible ways in which sentences can be parsed.

My take is that the participial phrase "talking to his mother" is a predicative adjunct. It is an adjunct, not a complement, because complements (also called "arguments") complete the sense and are thus required by the predicate. However, in this case we can very well say:

- He is back on the phone.

"talking to his mother" is therefore an adjunct because it merely adds information. The information provided by participial adjuncts is usually of an adverbial type (expressing the time, place, manner, or means by which the action expressed by the main verb is performed). In this case, I don't think any of these concepts is expressed by the participle, so I'd say it is a predicative that refers to the subject "he": He is back on the phone + He is talking to his mother = He is back on the phone talking to his mother.

Needless to say, "talking to his mother" expresses a simultaneous action. We cannot elicit that participle by asking when, where, or how, but just: What is he doing back on the phone? or He is back on the phone doing what?

Robby zhu posted:
(1a) He is back on the phone talking to his mother.

If it works,how do you parse this sentence?

Greetings, everybody,

This question of yours, Robby zhu, has occasioned a fair amount of reflection on my part over the last couple of days. I don't believe I'd ever thought about  (or read about) how to parse the relationship of the participial phrase to the rest of the sentence in this type of construction, which is extremely common among native speakers, and thus very much worth parsing.

Omitting "back," here are some other examples, with other prepositions:

(2a) He is in the bathroom taking a shower.
(3a) He is under the bridge eating a sandwich.
(4a) He is across the street buying a newspaper.
(5a) He is around the corner smoking a cigarette.

While I am sympathetic to the analysis Gustavo has proposed, which gives primacy to the (undeniably focused) prepositional phrase and interprets the participial phrase as supplementary, adverbial information, I have come up with an alternate analysis that provides a straightforward way of parsing the sentence.

Somewhat tentatively, I parse such sentences as containing progressive verb phrases with prepositional-phrase modifiers that are fronted within the (lower) verb phrase, appearing on the left side rather than on the right side. From a formal syntactic standpoint, progressive verb phrases consist of two verb phrases, one headed by the auxiliary verb "BE" and the other by the main verb.

On my parsing, then, the prepositional-phrase adjunct modifier is an adjunct in the lower verb phrase (headed by the main verb). Normally, that prepositional phrase appears on the right side; however, in this special type of sentence, the prepositional phrase is given focus and is thus fronted within the verb phrase. It flip-flops to the other side.

Below are the sentences from which I take the examples under discussion here to be derived. I have also attached a picture of two syntax trees that I have drawn to illustrate the derivation. Please do not worry about the labels of the various nodes! What I would like to draw your attention to is the red node and its two daughter nodes, also colored red. The two daughter nodes simply flip-flop in the second tree and that converts the straightforward progressive construction to the less straightforward construction that Robby zhu has asked about.

(1b) He is back talking to his mother on the phone.
(2b) He is in the bathroom taking a shower.
(3b) He is eating a sandwich under the bridge.
(4b) He is buying a newspaper across the street.
(5b) He is smoking a cigarette around the corner.

is on the phone talking

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Photos (1)
David, Moderator posted:
Robby zhu posted:
(1a) He is back on the phone talking to his mother.
[...]

(2a) He is in the bathroom taking a shower.
(3a) He is under the bridge eating a sandwich.
(4a) He is across the street buying a newspaper.
(5a) He is around the corner smoking a cigarette.

[...]

Somewhat tentatively, I parse such sentences as containing progressive verb phrases with prepositional-phrase modifiers that are fronted within the (lower) verb phrase, appearing on the left side rather than on the right side. From a formal syntactic standpoint, progressive verb phrases consist of two verb phrases, one headed by the auxiliary verb "BE" and the other by the main verb.

[...]

Below are the sentences from which I take the examples under discussion here to be derived. [...]

(1b) He is back talking to his mother on the phone.
(2b) He is in the bathroom taking a shower.
(3b) He is eating a sandwich under the bridge.
(4b) He is buying a newspaper across the street.
(5b) He is smoking a cigarette around the corner.

You've made a great point, David. I like your analysis very much. I have to say I had inadvertently anticipated that alternative parsing when I said at the end of my latest post:

We cannot elicit that participle by asking when, where, or how, but just: What is he doing back on the phone?

I think my analysis would be more plausible if the verb in -ing denoted a state, or a secondary action, and could perhaps be set off by a comma and be placed in front position. 

(6a) He is back on the phone, trying to strike a conversation with his mother after so many months in silence. (Here the participial clause seems to express purpose.)
(7a) He is back on the phone, using that funny tone of voice his mother likes so much. (Here the participial clause seems to express manner.)

A comma can also contribute to the V-ing functioning as a predicative adjunct. Compare these sentences, where I feel inclined to consider what comes after the comma as a predicative (non-adverbial) adjunct:

(8a) He is back on the phone, talking to his mother.
(9a) He is back on the phoneengaged in a friendly conversation with his mother.
(10a) He is back on the phone, talkative as usual.

In (8a) the V-ing is even less emphatic than in (1a), as shown by the possibility of its being replaced by a past participle or an adjective which can only be subject complements.

In sentences (6a) to (10a), the verb "be" seems to recover its copulative value.

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