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I'm not sure how the "doing my homework" phrase is to be analyzed in the following sentences:

  • I felt good doing my homework.
  • I had trouble doing my homework.
  • I needed help doing my homework.

Does "doing my homework" modify the preceding adjective "good" and the nouns "trouble" and "help" respectively, or it functions as a clausal modifier (adjunct)?

In the sentence:

I spent the whole evening doing my homework.

the "ing" phrase isn't related to the preceding noun, clearly modifying the whole content of the clause, but I'm still unsure how to analyze "doing my homework" in similar sentences.

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  • Could you try turning the subject into a question?
    – kaleissin
    Mar 15 '12 at 19:30
  • I tried to fix the title. If someone can still improve it, then be my guest. :)
    – Alenanno
    Mar 16 '12 at 10:28
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I'm afraid I can't distinguish between the two terms on offer. Sorry.

But in each of these sentences the gerund VP doing my homework functions semantically as a causative, viz.

  • doing my homework made me feel good
  • doing my homework made me have trouble
  • doing my homework made me need help
  • doing my homework made me spend the whole evening

and syntactically as the VP of a gerund clause with Equi-NP subject that is the object of a preposition or conjunction, which is often deleted in rapid colloquial speech, viz (with deletions restored in bold):

  • I felt good (while (I was)) doing my homework.
  • I had trouble (in my) doing my homework.
  • I needed help (with my) doing my homework.
  • I spent the whole evening (in my) doing my homework.
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  • 2
    A great explanation, thank you jlawler. I used the term "clausal adjunct" referring to a clause-level syntactic constituent. In "I needed help while I was doing my homework", I'd analyze the "while.." clause as a (time) adjunct - a sentence-level syntactic constituent. In "I needed help with doing my homework", I'd analyze "with doing my homework" as a complement in the noun phrase headed by "help",that is, as a phrase-level syntactic constituent. Mar 15 '12 at 21:55
  • Oh, that's not the only S it could have come from; it could also be reconstructed as I felt good (in my) doing my homework. I picked that one because it probably is interpreted that way by some people, though I would parse it as a preposition. Deletion rules delete structural information and it doesn't always reconstruct the same way for everybody's epistemic grammar.
    – jlawler
    Mar 15 '12 at 22:13
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Here's how I would analyse your sentences.

In all of your examples the constituent [doing my homework], a non-finite clause, has the same function, that of an adjunct (Huddleston and Pullum 2002). It modifies the matrix clause but not the subject in the matrix clause because adjuncts usually modify either a verbal phrase or another clause or the whole sentence. The connection between the clauses in your examples is not "what kind of I" or "what kind of good/trouble", so it can't be a noun-adjective postmodifier. The connection between the clauses is temporal.

Quirk et al. 1985: an adverbial clause of time, reason etc.

"Doing" in your examples is what Huddleston and Pullum 2002 call an "gerund-participle" since they decide not to distinguish between participle I and a gerund.

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In traditional grammar, the word doing is a participle in all your examples. It modifies the subject, I. This can be made more visible by reversing the word order, which results in a somewhat artificial but transparent sentence with identical meaning:

Doing my homework, I spent the whole evening.

Your construction is the same as in these sentences:

I hurt my hand repairing the car.

I left the house running.

A participle often expresses the circumstances in which the subject performs the action of the finite verb; that is why you can often replace it with a while or because clause, an adverbial constituent of time or cause:

I spent the whole evening because/while I was doing my homework.

A feature of English (ellipsis) is that we can sometimes leave out the subject and the form of to be. In this case, that is possible with while if the subject is the same as that of the main clause and the finite verb is a form of to be. Then we get this:

I spent the whole evening while doing my homework.

But this elliptic clause is still quite different from the participial construction in your examples; notice how the ellipsis is not possible with because.


Now let's consider your first example:

I felt good doing my homework.

The fact that my homework is also felt to be identical to the thing you feel good about is accidental, it is a red herring: the construction is exactly the same as in I hurt my hand repairing the car, where repairing the car is in no way the thing you hurt your hand about/in/whatever.


One could add a preposition in your first example:

I felt good about doing my homework.

But that doesn't prove anything: the word about cannot normally be left out in English, so this is an entirely different construction. The fact that there is little change in meaning is, again, a coincidence rather than a structural feature. In this construction, doing is a gerund (not a participle), because it functions as a noun. Only things that function as nouns can be the object of a preposition. You can see that it is not possible in other instances of the same construction, which shows that doing is no gerund here:

*I spent the whole evening about doing my homework.

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