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Let us consider the following sentence:

After that first attempt, she wrote several more successful books.

Does this mean she wrote several additional books that were also successful? Or that she wrote several books that were more successful than the first?

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In principle either interpretation is valid. Working against "also successful" is that the first book is described as an "attempt", which suggests it wasn't actually particularly successful. Working against "more successful" is that "several more" is a commonplace collocation. Any speaker/writer would be better advised to rephrase and remove the ambiguity. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '12 at 22:31
up vote 5 down vote accepted

It can have either meaning, but only in print.

In actual English, i.e, speech, the sentences would be pronounced differently, to distinguish their meanings. But English orthography does not represent intonation or rhythm, and therefore the written sentence looks ambiguous.

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Of course the opposite is also true- that since spoken communication does not carry with it any punctuation, ambiguity arises with it as well. A great Dane proposed a solution for this as far back as 1936 but it never really caught on. – Jim Apr 3 '12 at 2:26
Punctuation is not a conventional standard like intonation contours, but rather a pale -- and patently impotent -- imitation forced upon writers by the ridiculosity of English orthography. – John Lawler Apr 3 '12 at 2:50
Nice paper. You do realize the tongue-in-cheek nature of my comment right? – Jim Apr 3 '12 at 3:13
Now I do. There are tongues all over the place around here, so I try to tread less ironically than usual. – John Lawler Apr 3 '12 at 15:25
+1 Jim CHICK s comment for CHICK CHICK great Dane CHICK CHICK fssss-PUTT – MετάEd Sep 10 '12 at 13:54

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