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'He made them stand against the wall crying.'

Is it possible for 'crying' in this example to refer to the pronoun 'them'?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

The only interpretations I find syntactically possible are

"He made them' stand [against the wall] crying' "


"He made them stand against [the wall' crying'] "

(where the ticks ' indicate the items that belong together).

Pragmatically, the second is unlikely, so the first one is the only realistic interpretation; but for example

"He made them stand against the wall looking battered"

is more ambiguous (though I would still go for attaching the description to "them" without more context), and you can probably find other examples which are even more finely balanced.

The third parse

"He' made them stand against the wall crying' "

I find impossible unless there is a comma before "crying".

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If they allow use of brackets in english it will be much easier to read. :) – Pratik Deoghare Mar 23 '11 at 12:12
@MachineCharmer: Noooo not the evil brackets that will eventually mess up your code, because you forgot one and you never ever noticed until you'd rewritten huge chunks... (oh, and good answer, +1.) – Cerberus Mar 23 '11 at 13:13
Perhaps another acceptable parse would make "the wall crying" a group of people (those at the wailing wall?). It's clearly not the intent, but as long as we're looking for obscure interpretations... – JCooper Mar 23 '11 at 13:14

Yes, that is how they stood against the wall. Or at least that's how I have learned to group the words; I can see these interpretations being valid:

  • They cried when he caused them to stand against the wall.
  • He caused them to stand against the wall which cries.
  • He cried while causing them to stand against the wall.

(First post on this SE, woohoo.)

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If it were the wall to cry, I would say "the crying wall." – kiamlaluno Mar 23 '11 at 8:13
@kiamlaluno I agree, yet I would still consider it valid - or at least that type of construction is fairly common, which imo is more important than the formalized rules. "The man leaving" not "the leaving man" for example. – Grault Mar 23 '11 at 8:45
It depends from the sentence. "The man leaving the building is my brother-in-law" is fine, but "the leaving man the building is my brother-in-law" is probably not fine. The same is true for past participles used as adjectives: "The door broken by my cousin still needs to be repaired." – kiamlaluno Mar 23 '11 at 9:29

As the wall doesn't cry, it must be they.

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