Present Participle as a Premodifier/Postmodifier

akimura

Senior Member
Japanese
Hello,

I understand that a present participle phrase can be used to postmodify a noun.
1) The girl dancing on the stage is my sister.
Now, when a present participle alone is used for the same function, many of my basic grammar books tell me that it should be used as a premodifier.
2a) Who is that dancing girl?
But I've seen quite a lot of examples where it's used as a postmodifier. And a little more advanced grammar books support such examples. An example would be:
2b) Who is that girl dancing?
I've also learned that it depends on the verb being used and its context given whether to premodify or postmodify a noun with a present participle. When given some examples such as the following, I understand that native speakers may have a preference for each set of examples.
3a) Look at the dancing girl.
3b) Look at the girl dancing.
4a) Look at that dancing girl.
4b) Look at that girl dancing.
5a) Look at that swimming boy.
5b) Look at that boy swimming.
But I still have hard time figuring out the criteria for when to premodify and when to postmodify with a single present participle. Would anybody here care to help me with it?

I understand that my question is pretty common so there may already have been a lot of discussions and their conclusions, in which case I would apologize in advance for posting the same question. But I've failed to find the threads that have covered the topic...
 
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  • Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I sympathise, Akimura. This isn't the easiest bit of English grammar.

    Beware of the difference between a dancing girl (a particular sort of girl) and a girl dancing (a girl engaged in dancing). I don't think the present participle very often is happily used as a premodifier - though I expect there are many cases when it works fine - and I actually disagree with your book's example:

    Who is that dancing girl? would mean Who is that flashy vulgar girl?, not Who is that girl dancing? Indeed the dancing girl in the first question might not be dancing at all; she's a dancing girl.
     

    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    Hello akimura

    I am sure this isn't a completely satisfactory answer so please regard it as a first kick of the ball so to speak. It strikes me as being at an advanced level so it can't have been asked very often and if there are previous threads I am sure a better informed person than myself will direct you to them. :)
    So here are my initial thoughts

    3a) Look at the dancing girl.
    3b) Look at the girl dancing.
    4a) Look at that dancing girl.
    4b) Look at that girl dancing.
    5a) Look at that swimming boy.
    5b) Look at that boy swimming.

    I have a very strong instinctive preference for all the 'b' phrases. Of the 'a' phrases, I ask myself why 5a is especially unlikely, meaning that I can't think of any situation when I would want to say "Look at that swimming boy".

    So, why is "Look at the dancing girl ", or even "Look at that dancing girl", not quite so impossible. I suspect it might be because there are porcelain figurines and drawings and paintings called for instance "The Dancing Girl " or "Dancing Girls".

    It crosses my mind that 'dancing girls' could be an old fashioned expression for dancers in a troupe, girls who earn their living by dancing.

    I need more coffee and I need to hunt out my grammar books! There's probably a very easy answer and I can't see the wood for the trees this morning.

    Hermione
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    We need to get 'dancing girl' out of the way. This is normally used with 'dancing' as the gerundial noun, and 'dancing girl' is a compound noun with accent on the first syllable, mean "girl who professionally or habitually engages in dancing", like a ballerina but typically in a more exotic, for example Middle Eastern or Indian, context. So it's hard to use the words 'dancing girl' with 'dancing' as a verb. If we did, it would normally have stress on the noun, 'dancing girl'.

    The example I usually use of a premodifying gerund-participle ('present participle') is 'crying baby'. Listen to that crying baby; The crying baby is keeping me awake.

    In premodifier position the verb can't be modified except by its own premodifiers: a loudly crying baby. As a postmodifier, however, it can take any kind of further modification, including objects and locations:

    the girl dancing the tango
    the girl dancing down the street
    the girl dancing for joy

    So finally, when it's not so modified but is just a single postmodifying verb, what's the difference? To me it seems the premodifier seems to pick out the noun ('the crying baby' identifies a particular baby), but the postmodifier picks out the activity. If you watch a dancing boy you're watching a boy, and if you watch a boy dancing you're watching the activity: the dancing of the boy.
     

    akimura

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Thank you all for all the support! I also think I'm well informed now of the need to put stress on the noun part of <present participle> + <noun> structure, such as the crying baby, when the noun is currently engaged in the activity.

    I would like to test my understanding, so could you make judgment on the following?

    • I love that smiling girl.
    To say this aloud, you should put more stress on "girl" than on "smiling". And the sentence means that "I" love that girl who happens to be smiling right now.

    • I love that girl smiling.
    It seems that you generally put more stress on "smiling" than on "girl"? And the sentence means that "I" love the smiling of that girl, where "I" am not necessarily in love with the girl herself, or at least the sentence doesn't show any emotion of his towards the girl herself.

    I still wonder, though, if you might sometimes put more stress on "girl" than on "smiling" for the sentence "I love that girl smiling," in which case "I" would actually be in love with the girl?
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    You can put contrastive stress on anything: I love that girl smiling (but I don't like it when the old woman does it). I love that girl smiling (but not when she frowns). Discussion of normal accent patterns has to exclude any special emphasis. Without any particular contrast, the accent is on the verb in 'girl smiling'.

    An example I use to illustrate that it's the action that's dominant in the postmodifier use is 'John hates his wife wearing purple'. Here it's the underlined situation that's what John hates. Linguists are divided over the syntactic structure of such sentences: some say 'his wife' is still the object of 'hates', others say the whole clause is a complement of 'hates'.
     

    akimura

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    It's been a while since I got comfortable on the topic, but I'd like to go a step further now.

    I understand that "Look at that swimming boy" isn't good, but "Look at that boy swimming." is okay, and that there aren't many present participles that can comfortably be used as noun premodifiers. Also, previously in this thread, I learned that the premodifying "crying" as in "Listen to that crying baby" is fine.

    The example I usually use of a premodifying gerund-participle ('present participle') is 'crying baby'. Listen to that crying baby; The crying baby is keeping me awake.
    Now, 1) I would like to know whether "sleeping", can be used happily as a premodifier as in "Look at that sleeping baby," and 2) I'm wondering if anyone could give me some or several examples of present participles that can comfortably be used as premodifiers, preferably the ones that preschool children should know such as "crying" because I want to show the examples to my English-class students, middle students, who are really beginners in learning English.

    Thank you in advance for your assistance!
     

    ribran

    Senior Member
    English - American
    It's been a while since I got comfortable on the topic, but I'd like to go a step further now.

    I understand that "Look at that swimming boy" isn't good, but "Look at that boy swimming." is okay, and that there aren't many present participles that can comfortably be used as noun premodifiers. Also, previously in this thread, I learned that the premodifying "crying" as in "Listen to that crying baby" is fine.



    Now, 1) I would like to know whether "sleeping", can be used happily as a premodifier as in "Look at that sleeping baby," and 2) I'm wondering if anyone could give me some or several examples of present participles that can comfortably be used as premodifiers, preferably the ones that preschool children should know such as "crying" because I want to show the examples to my English-class students, middle students, who are really beginners in learning English.

    Thank you in advance for your assistance!
    Look at that sleeping baby is perfect.

    I will try to think of some other examples. One that immediately springs to mind is, "Look at the flashing lights."
     

    akimura

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Look at that sleeping baby is perfect.

    I will try to think of some other examples. One that immediately springs to mind is, "Look at the flashing lights."
    Thank you, ribran.

    So we have, so far, the following list of premodifying present participles in example sentences:
    Listen to that crying baby.
    Look at that sleeping baby.
    Look at the flashing lights.

    Allow me to ask for a little more. How about Look at that barking dog? Or should it be Look at that dog barking? What about Look at the falling leaves? Or is it Look at the leaves falling?
     

    ribran

    Senior Member
    English - American
    Thank you, ribran.

    So we have, so far, the following list of premodifying present participles in example sentences:
    Listen to that crying baby.
    Look at that sleeping baby.
    Look at the flashing lights.

    Allow me to ask for a little more. How about Look at that barking dog? Or should it be Look at that dog barking? What about Look at the falling leaves? Or is it Look at the leaves falling?
    Look at that barking dog and Look at that dog barking are both fine.

    I prefer ...at the falling leaves to ...at the leaves falling; however, you would have to say Look at the leaves falling from the tree.
     

    Creato

    Banned
    Ukranian (South Ukraine)
    A very interesting discussion. Never before have I thought about a general rule that could tell us when we should use Participle I before and when after a noun. When I've read everything posted so far I've understood some key ideas, but I haven't found an answer to the following question: is there a general rule which can be used to choose a participle position? For example, "a smiling girl" and "a girl smiling" makes a difference, but "a barking dog" and "a dog barking" doesn't. So what about a general rule?
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Look at that barking dog and Look at that dog barking are both fine.

    I prefer ...at the falling leaves to ...at the leaves falling; however, you would have to say Look at the leaves falling from the tree.
    Now I'm puzzled, Ribran.

    If you're happy with Look at that dog barking, why won't you accept Look at the leaves falling?

    I'm also not clear if you consider the barking dog to be the same thing as the dog barking, because I can imagine differences. In order to avoid seeming illiterate a French person has to distinguish carefully, should the dog be female, between the spelling of the adjective barking, in the barking dog and the dog barking at the visitors. I think this is because there is an important grammatical distinction being made.

    I think the barking dog is much the same as the dog which is barking, but the dog barking can be close to the barking of the dog.
     

    relic5.2

    Senior Member
    English - Ireland
    How about Look at that barking dog? Or should it be Look at that dog barking?
    There can be slight differences in nuance here.

    "Look at that barking dog" - "look at the dog which is barking (, isn't he cute?)"

    "Look at that dog barking" though could be "look at the way in which he's barking (has the dog heard someone drive in, or break in?)"

    Same for swimming:
    "Look at the swimming boy" - "there's a boy who's swimming, look at him"
    "Look at the boy swimming" - "look at him! He's a natural-born swimmer (or completely useless"
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Look at the <participle> <noun>.
    The sentence tells us to look at an instance of <noun> and <participle> tells us which instance of <noun> we should look at.
    <participle> defines which <noun> we are to look at.

    Look at the <noun> <participle>.
    This tells us to look at <noun>, and incidentally tells us what <noun> is doing - which is perhaps why we should look at <noun>.
    <participle> describes what <noun> is doing.

    The difference is like the difference between a defining relative clause and a describing relative clause.

    In real situations it may not matter which comes first.
     

    KHS

    Senior Member
    And then there are the ones that can't be used:

    Look at the boy watching the performers.

    But I can't say:
    *Look at the watching boy.

    Can anyone else say that?

    Look at the boy asking the question.

    but not:
    *Look at the asking boy.

    Is it only with intransitive verbs that it can come before the noun?
     

    akimura

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Is it only with intransitive verbs that it can come before the noun?
    It's an interesting question, though I wouldn't be surprised if only intransitive verbs could come before the noun.

    Meanwhile, I would still like to keep pursuing general rules in this thread, but I'm a little confused by the specific example, swimming, that has previously been taken up a few times. About a year ago, in this thread, I thought that Look at that swimming boy was rejected, but now Look at the swimming boy is accepted.
    "Look at the swimming boy" - "there's a boy who's swimming, look at him"
    Does it mean that you can use a single present participle as a premodifier in the Look at the <present participle> <noun> structure but that you can't do the same, or in other words, you can't use the Look at that <present participle> <noun> structure? Or, is it that it's still debatable whether swimming itself can be used as a single noun premodifier?
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I think the issue is more complex than any individual post suggests so far, but the only real rule I see is the one about modifiers, including objects and other verbal complements, that ETB mentioned in Post #4.

    Swimming as a premodifier is commonly a gerund: "swimming suit", "swimming pool", etc., but dancing is less common in this sort of construction. Yes, dancing can be a gerund too (e.g. "dancing shoes"), but to me less commonly than swimming.

    Part of the difficulty I have is with boy. "Look at those swimming tadpoles" sounds entirely normal to me. Another issue is "look at", since "Watch the swimming boy" sounds normal too. (So does "Keep your eyes on the dancing girl", with the meaning of "girl that dances or is dancing".)

    In other words, there is nothing wrong with saying "Look at that swimming boy" or "Look at the dancing girl" (or even "Look at the watching boy" or "Look at the asking boy"), but the participle-first construction is harder to disambiguate, for the reason given by ETB.

    I think a little context helps:

    Pay no attention to the performing boys: look only at the watching boy.
    Said by an observer behind one-way glass: The answering boy is not the focus of our attention. Look at the asking boy.

     

    akimura

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    I think I'm starting to see the light, but I'm not so sure. So please correct me if I am wrong:
    Many of the grammar books I have claim that a single present participle should be placed before the noun that will modify.

    But that is wrong. A single present participle can be placed either before the noun or after the noun in many cases; i.e. Look at those swimming tadpoles and Look at those tadpoles swimming.

    There will be a slight semantic disparity from each other depending on which position to choose, but as long as it matches the context, a single present participle can be placed either before or after the noun, in other words, it can be used as either a premodifier or a postmodifier.

    As for the postmodification, it will generate an acceptable sentence in many cases, as long as it matches the context. There are far more cases where a multi-word expression with a present participle serves: i.e. Look at the leaves falling from the trees. But as long as you're sure it will match the context, you can put a single present participle after the noun: i.e. Look at the leaves falling.

    As for the premodification, it's acceptable too. However, it should be noted that there will be far fewer situations where you can successfully premodify with a single present participle than those where you can postmodify with a single present participle, not to mention those where you can postmodify with a multi-word phrase led by a present participle.

    The idea stated in the last paragraph is not to exclude fairly established phrases, such as developing countries and a growing number.
     
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