Student Stumper 25: Identifying the Uses of “As”

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.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. nliakos says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I love this sort of confusing grammar question. I had pegged “as their focus” as a prep. phrase right away, but later, the “as…as” structure (followed by a NP or followed by a clause) gets quite interesting. I think those NPs are generally considered to be abbreviated clauses, aren’t they (“as confused as everyone [is])? I haven’t read Koch yet, but I look forward to it.

    It sounds like (as if?) you sometimes diagram sentences for students, which is something I long to do, but I don’t know how to treat phrasal verbs. I want to treat them as verbs, but I think most people diagram them as verb + preposition (-al phrase). Are phrasal verbs an ESL phenomenon, ignored by the rest of the world? Surely not! So how would you diagram “I called up my friend,” or even more interesting, “I called my friend up”?

    I was so interested in this that I read a whole book about diagramming: Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey. But she did not mention phrasal verbs! 😦

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I’ve encountered a good number of students who like to label everything with a grammar term. They need to understand how each word or phrase is functioning in a sentence. This is especially common when different explanations seem to contradict one another. I found it very challenging to teach phrasal verbs in my YouTube videos, but I knew I couldn’t avoid them forever! As I prepared my own presentation, I saw how some textbooks prefer the term “particle”, while others decide to call those short words prepositions or adverbs. Very confusing, indeed. In my own mind, I tend to think that particles can be either adverbs or prepositions. If the particle is mobile, such as “up” in “call up my friend”/ “call my friend up”, then I’d argue it’s behaving like an adverb. In contrast, “through” in “look through the book” must be followed by object, so it’s behavior is like a preposition. Does that make sense?

  2. Nina Liakos says:

    Yes, it does, but in a way it makes the issue more confusing, don’t you think? I tend to use “particle” because I don’t want students to think these are prepositions. And have you noticed that “3-word verbs” (e.g., get along with, put up with) have one of each? The first is a particle/adverb, and the second is a preposition (required before an object).

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Yes, so I think the easiest explanation is to call them all particles. Phrasal verb = verb + one or more particles. Then if they get curious as to why some are separable and some aren’t, I explain my understanding how technically the so-called particles are adverbs and/or prepositions. In the case of three-part phrasal verbs, I agree that the first particle is an adverb and the second is a preposition. I don’t think the labels help students recall the phrasal verbs structure or meaning. I think phrasal verbs should be treated like new vocabulary. We should limit how many we present at one time (and always present in a meaningful context) and make sure students get both controlled and communicative practice with them.

      1. Nina Liakos says:

        Basically, I agree! Phrasal verbs are a category of collocation and need to be presented as units. The separable/nonseparable business is just an annoying little grammatical addendum; the main issue is what they mean. Happy Thanksgiving! I am thankful for your blog, which always has such interesting ideas.

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