QUESTION: I don’t understand the grammar in the following sentence. Both paintings have as their focus women from that era amidst their everday lives. Can you break it down for me?
ANSWER: This question was posed by a YouTuber who had faith in my ability to make sense of that long sentence. I got as far as identifying the subject (both paintings), the verb (have), and the direct object (women). Then it became a matter of identifying “from that era” and “amidst their everyday lives” as prepositional phrases that clarify which women are being discussed. However, I got stumped by “as their focus”. Was I looking at an adverb phrase, a complement, or another prepositional phrase?
I needed to consult with two respected colleagues to resolve this. One clue was the mobility of the phrase. “As their focus” could also be placed at the end of the sentence: Both paintings have women from that era amidst their everday lives as their focus. Of course, that sequence would lead to confusion over the use of possessive adjectives, but the word order is possible. The other clue was the use of “their focus” after “as”. That’s the pattern of an indirect object. Conclusion: “as their focus” is a prepositonal phrase. It explains in what capacity the paintings have or use the women.
But the fun doesn’t end there, at least for us teachers. Looking at various dictionaries, you’ll find “as” under at least two separate entries. The Longman Dictionary of American English (2002 Edition) lists three main uses: adverb, preposition, and conjunction. I should note that the first two functions are listed together as one entry, though. Hmm… So when is “as” an adverb and when is it a preposition?
Let me give one example: This question is as difficult as the last one. = In this as…as construction, I’d say the first “as” is an adverb (+ adjective “difficult”) and the second “as” is a preposition (+ object “the last one”). Would you agree? However, for the sake of simplicity, I wouldn’t likely share my musings with students unless directly asked. Instead, I’d present as…as as a unit that expresses a comparison or similarity.
But wait one second. The as…as structure is also used in the examples listed in the conjunction entry for “as” the Longmand Dictionary of American English. Could the same structure be all three at the same time: an adverb, a preposition, and conjunction? If I could, I’d avoid diagraming sentences with students. I’d prefer that they focus on purpose and meaning. Again, I’d emphasize the use of as…as as a unit to express a comparison or similarity. The unit can be broken so only a single “as” is used, but then only the quality being compared is named.
- You don’t understand, do you? I’m just as confused. = adverb (+ adjective “confused”)
- I’m just as confused as everyone else. = adverb, preposition
- I am as confused as you are. = conjunction (joining two ideas)
If I shared these examples with students, I’d likely leave out the labels identifying the functions of “as” and simply let them digest the possible patterns to make a comparison. Would you do the same?
If you’re eager to read more about as, you’ll likely appreciate the clearly worded explanations Rachel Spack Koch gives on its use as a subordinating conjunction and on the differences between as and like. See the archives of her Q&A board on the Azar Grammar Exchange.