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I have a problem with a sentence "A list of items grouped by category". There are two possible ways to understand this sentence:

  1. (A list of items) that is grouped by category
  2. A list of (items that are grouped by category)

How to write it correctly?

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2  
It looks like is and are in (1) and (2) effectively disambiguate the two... –  Kosmonaut Jan 3 '11 at 22:44
    
Is there any functional difference between the two interpretations? –  Hellion Jan 3 '11 at 22:56
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To me, the original phrase can only mean (2), because (1) would only be meaningful if it's "ListS of items," or else it's semantically identical as (2). –  Percy P. Jan 3 '11 at 22:58
    
'Is' and 'are' aren't solve the problem because I can make a sentence "the part of the picture drawn by me". There is a difference between 2 sentences, but it isn't clear as I want. –  vorrtex Jan 3 '11 at 23:34

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

[Edited]

I don't think "is" in 1 would be a good choice: if you are grouping a whole, you mean you are grouping its parts; and if those parts are explicitly mentioned, it seems odd to stick the grouping to the whole instead of the parts. If you did this, the fact that "that" comes right after "items" and that the two would be a great fit together would make the sentence awkward.

In 2, are you thinking of a list of items that only includes those items that are grouped by category, which thus leaves out those items that are not grouped by category? That is what the brackets and the that-clause seem to indicate. I find it hard to imagine a situation where you would want to say this.

I'd choose 2, but the type of relative clause is odd. Why not add a comma and change "that" to "which"? The relative clause sounds better as a non-defining clause, since the fact that they are categorised does not limit or define the items for me: it is rather extra information. Whether a participle is defining or not cannot be seen if there is no full clause: that is why you could not see it in "a list of items grouped by category". The comma of a non-defining relative clause is not compulsory with a non-defining participle (I think I am right here, right?).


Let's take Vorrtex's second example:

The part of the picture drawn by me was destroyed by the fire.

(I added "was destroyed by the fire" to put it into a real context.) In this case, "drawn" could belong to either "part" or "picture", so the sentence is ambiguous. There is no way to clear this up without changing the sentence so that "drawn" can only point to one noun:

I drew part of this picture, and [my part | the picture] was destroyed by the fire.

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Example of the first option: "A list of trainings grouped by a university". Example of the second: "A list of training categories grouped by a university". I would say the second example as "A list of training categories, each of them has a trainings that are grouped by a university". But I feel that there is a better way to say this. –  vorrtex Jan 3 '11 at 23:48
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@Vorrtex: I'm sorry, but I don't understand what your example sentences are supposed to mean... did I get your other example right, the one that I edited in as the second part of my answer? –  Cerberus Jan 3 '11 at 23:54
    
Example of universities means double grouping, but it is hard to explain. I have a question about an another example: Can I use articles to remove an ambiguous meaning? "The part of a picture" and "A part of the picture" are different, right? –  vorrtex Jan 4 '11 at 0:11
    
Probably changing of a sentence is the best choice in such vague situations. No problem, I have no doubts now. –  vorrtex Jan 4 '11 at 0:30
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@Vorrtex: Articles can sometimes remove this kind of ambiguity. But the problem is that articles can also interact with other thoughts and previous sentences, so I cannot give a general answer. In this case, I think it might work: in [an x of the y participle], the participle most probably belongs to y. However, in [the x of a y participle] I don't think the relation is clear. In [the x of a y comma participle] or in [an x of the y comma participle, it isn't clear either. –  Cerberus Jan 4 '11 at 1:48

In terms of meaning, whether it is the list that is being grouped or the items that are being grouped, the meaning is the same - grouping the objects written on a piece of paper.

In terms of word choice, the second option seems better, as it is more natural to think in terms of grouping the multiple distinct objects and not the list.

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Ok, grouping is used for items and the second option is better. But how about other examples of verbs? "List of items that is/are drawn on the paper", "List of items that is/are located on the page". For some reason I think that 'is' is more suitable than 'are' sometimes. –  vorrtex Jan 3 '11 at 23:58
    
A choice becomes clear if to think that the list is abstract and the items are real. I would rather use 'are' in such situations. –  vorrtex Jan 4 '11 at 0:21

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