Student Stumper 17: Reducing Confusion Over Reduced Clauses

Another teacher recently sent e-mail asking about adverb phrases. How should we teach them? What forms of practice can we offer? His students had become confused over three similar looking phrases: asked, being asked, and having been asked. That’s not surprising.  Just as vocabulary expressions which are close in meaning or form can easily be confused, similar grammatical structures can also create confusion, especially at the upper levels, where students often discover that more than one structure can be used to express a single idea. The first key is context. Enough context should clarify meaning and appropriate use.

  • Example 1: (When) asked about the economy, the president began to outline the new budget.
  • Example 2: (While) being asked about the new budget, the president had to explain the need to raise taxes.
  • Example 3: Having been asked the same questions several times before, the president was prepared to give clear and detailed answers.


I like asking students to look at examples and guiding them to conclusions. With the three examples on the board, I’d pose these questions:

1. Who did the asking? The president or the media?

2. In the main part of the sentence, who is the subject?

>> The answers should help students understand that the phrases apply to the president and that the president was the receiver of the action. Thus, the adverb phrases are passive constructions.

3. The words when and while are time words (subordinating conjunctions), so we know that Examples 1 and 2 help build a timeline. Which form follows when? Which form follows while?

>> The past participle follows when, and the present participle follows while.

Would the forms change if the phrases had an active rather than passive meaning?

>> Example 1. Yes. = (Use the present participle for active voice.) When asking about the economy, the media demanded an explanation for the tax increase.

>> Example 2. Yes: (Remove the helping verb be and use only the main verb as a present participle.) While asking about the new budget, the media demanded to know where the additional funds would come from.


4. Examples 1 and 2 describe a timeline. Which example shows sequential actions (one after the other) and which example shows simultaneous actions (at the same time)?

>> Example 1: sequential = (1) The president was asked a question. (2) The president responded.

>> Example 2: simultaneous = within the same time frame asking and explaining occurred

5. Does Example 3 also show a time relationship between two events?

>> Yes. (1) The president was asked these questions before. (2) He was prepared to answer these questions. But a cause-effect relationship is also implied. To understand what is implied, I think it’s beneficial to spell it out, that is, reword the whole sentence so students see how the adverb phrase (nonfinite clause) corresponds to the adverb clause (finite clause).

  • Example 1 reworded: When the president was asked about the economy, he began to outline the new budget.
  • Example 2 reworded: While the president was being asked about the new budget, he had to explain the need to raise taxes.
  • Example 3 reworded: Because the president had been asked the same questions several times before, he was prepared to give clear and detailed answers.


A final point to make is why a student would even need to write such sentences. What’s your answer?

I’d explain that it’s similar to the use of contractions (can’t, don’t, etc.) in that is makes speech more concise. However, I’d argue that unlike contractions, the reduced adverb clauses are more typical of formal, written speech.

In my next posting, I’ll offer an idea for classroom practice.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Silvi says:

    Hi Jennifer!

    I hope this mail finds you well! Your answer was really enlightening and I totally agree with the above. However, in one of my student’s essays, I found the following sentence ” Being led by aggressive instincts, humans are acting in a violent manner…” In this case, we can use both forms of your examples 1 & 2 even though I agree more with the 1st one “Led by….”. So, in some cases both forms are acceptable and may fit the same context, right? Thank you!

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I’m glad you found the posting useful, and I hope you understand that while I’m able to explain my understanding of this grammar point, I’m still going to be stumped by certain uses of adverb phrases! I think you’re right that two forms can fit one context at times. I agree that “Leb by…,” sounds better in your student’s sentence. Could it be that “Led by…,” suggests a general truth and general time frame, while “Being led by…,” suggests a more temporary state?

      That question reminds me of the uses of “when” and “while”. Textbooks usually pair the latter with progressive tenses, but isn’t it possible sometimes to use either? For example:
      1. I found an old pair of sunglasses while I was cleaning my room.
      2. I found an old pair of sunglasses when I was cleaning my room.

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