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I want to visit clubs with attractive women.

This phrase can be interpreted in two ways:

  • I want to visit clubs myself, but the clubs I visit should have attractive women.

  • I want to take attractive women to clubs; the clubs themselves may or may not already have attractive women.

Is there a name for this ambiguity? It seems fairly common. I want to say "dangling participle", but I'm pretty sure that's wrong.

Is this the equivalent of Grouch Marx's "I shot an elephant in my pajamas... how he got into my pajamas, I'll never know"?

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Related, at least, if not downright what you're looking for. –  Robusto Jul 24 '13 at 20:33
1  
A dangling modifier, I would say. In fact the Wikipedia article specifically mentions the Groucho Marx example. The whole quote is then a paraprosdokian, but only the whole phrase, not just the first part. –  RegDwigнt Jul 24 '13 at 20:41
    
@RegDwighт This should be an answer. –  bib Jul 24 '13 at 21:59
    
You're missing out on a lot of ambiguity. For instance: "clubs" can mean venue (probably what you refer to) or baseball bat (hammer). Also, attractive can mean a lot of things, e.g. attractive in a magnetic way, gravity way, or emotional way (I assume you mean emotional). –  aurora Jul 24 '13 at 22:50

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Your sentence contains an example of ambiguity resulting from a misrelated construction. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines misrelated as follows:

Not attached grammatically to the word or phrase intended by the meaning, either joined to the wrong word or phrase, or completely unattached.

Although terms such as misrelated, dangling, hanging, unattached, etc. are most commonly applied to participles, verbless phrases can also be misrelated.

The offending misrelation in your sentence is not a participle but a prepositional phrase.

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Though near-identical structures are both grammatically acceptable and unambiguous: I want to visit clubs with my brother. I want to visit clubs with decent beers. –  Edwin Ashworth Jul 24 '13 at 22:01
    
Aren't those unambiguous solely due to context? If someone was studying English purely grammatically and didn't know what "brother" or "beers" meant, this could still be ambiguous? –  barrycarter Jul 24 '13 at 23:05
    
How on earth can someone study a natural language without recourse to meaning at some level? Though (as Chomsky rightly emphasised) the study of syntax per se is very important and enlightening, it must never be seen as trumping what the speaker / writer is trying to say - which must also take into account semantics and pragmatics. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 8 '13 at 2:39

I think this is called Amphiboly. The first example I ever read was the phrase "half baked chicken".

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