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I apologize that I don't know how to search for this question--it may be a duplicate, or maybe I just should have learned it in English class!

I'm a teacher, and in another StackExchange, I wrote the following, in regard to a policy that I discuss during the first day of class:

I mention that I won't tolerate [grade-grubbing] on the first day of class.

After re-reading it, I realized that I could mean, "I won't tolerate grade-grubbing if it happens on the first day of class." Instead, I meant "On the first day of class, I mention that I won't tolerate grade-grubbing at any time during the course."

What is the term (or explanation) for this kind of ambiguity?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

This seems to me to be a misplaced modifier, also called a dangling modifier. The modifying prepositional phrase, "on the first day of class," is syntactically placed so that it apparently refers to "grade-grubbing." The mere positioning of the phrase leads to the confusion.

The more commonly seen version of this mistake occurs when the prepositional phrase is set off as an introductory dependent clause. For example, "Buried under the snow, George found an old boot." George wasn't buried under the snow; the boot was.

(Dan's thoughtful analysis of anaphor resolution seems helpful, but that generally is a matter of pronoun confusion — figuring out which of more than one referent is linked to a particular pronoun — not applicable to your example.)

(And if John Lawler weighs in on this question, he'll set us all straight.)

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The technical term is an "attachment ambiguity". This happens when there's a modifier at the end of a complex sentence which could be attached to more than one of the preceding clauses. They're very common and normally they're distinguished in speech by intonation, so we don't notice the ambiguity. But writing is not a very good representation of spoken language, so ambiguity increases, as it does in Garden-Path Sentences. –  John Lawler Apr 2 '13 at 14:50

I've had frustrations with this too. I remember trying in vain to explain to someone else the other meaning of a warning sign; I couldn't, mostly because I lacked the right vocabulary.

Here's what I found: Finding the right antecedent to the sentence-ending phrase "on the first day of class" appears to be called anaphor resolution. If the phrase occured in the first part of the sentence, it would be cataphoric. (To refer to either case, there is endophoric.) The particular problem with

I mention that I won't tolerate [grade-grubbing] on the first day of class.

looks like Nearest Referent, where "on the first day of class" is linked to the closer "tolerate" than to the further-away "mention."

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Dan, this is very good, but I really think it's not exactly the case. Maybe I'm wrong, but take a look at my answer. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 2 '13 at 7:22
    
I was worried that it might not be, when I saw that "or other [parts] of speech" was parenthetical on the wiki for Nearest Referent. Your answer is better. "Misplaced/Dangling Modifier" is easier to understand and remember. –  anonymous Apr 2 '13 at 16:01
    
Thanks, Dan. And see? I told you John Lawler could nail this down to perfection. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 3 '13 at 0:05

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