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I am in the middle of an argument, and therefore trying to figure out the breakdown of the definition:

a member of a military group devoted to engineering work

which appears in Merriam-Webster's entry for "engineer" (Definition 1). The dictionary entry also includes this example sentence:

Army engineers were called in to construct the canal.

I assume the definition means 'a member of a group in the military where the group is devoted to engineering work' while the person with whom I am arguing assumes the sentence means 'an individual who is devoted to engineering work who is also in a military group'.

I am looking for both what the definition means, as well as why it means what it does. This would ideally take the form of citing some official guide (MLA, Chicago, etc...), but if the explanation is cogent enough it will still be extremely useful.

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It means an engineer is the name for a person who belongs to a military group, the group's purpose being the performance of engineering work. If it meant what your friend says then that would imply that anyone not in the military could not be an engineer. –  Jim Aug 29 '12 at 6:19
    
usace.army.mil –  Jim Aug 29 '12 at 6:24
    
While this does diverge from my original question, my friend would argue M-W's definition 3(b) ("a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering") covers non-military engineers. This is why I am specifically asking for citing something referencing why the "devoted to..." applies to the group, I am trying to argue the sentence I listed above while he wants to broaden the argument. –  Reekan Mantell Aug 29 '12 at 6:26
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Yes, but 3(b) would therefore also cover an engineer who happened to be in a military group of any sort along with engineers who also happen to be a member of a symphony orchestra. The point of def.1 is that in the military they have a special Corps called the Army Corps of Engineers and anyone who is a member of that corps is considered an engineer as well. –  Jim Aug 29 '12 at 6:33
    
You could say sapper for "a member of a military group devoted to engineering work". –  Kris Aug 29 '12 at 7:07
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2 Answers

A good working rule is that such a description applies to the immediately preceding noun, unless there are clear indications to the contrary. Whether there are clear indications to the contrary will depend on the entire context, but there are no such indications in the limited context of your example. This is less a matter of grammar than of knowledge of the world. Is it likely that a military group would have only one member devoted to engineering work?

What would your antagonist make of these sentences?

She was a member of a choir specialising in Italian opera.

They were members of an organisation dedicated to charitable work.

I am a member of a team determined to come top of the league this year.

Doesn’t our knowledge of the world tell us that the last words in each sentence describe the groups rather than the individuals?

To express the contrary meaning, the sentences would have to be these rather unlikely ones:

She was a member of a choir and specialised in Italian opera.

They were dedicated to charitable work and members of an organisation.

I am determined to come top of the league this year and am a member of a team.

Similarly, to express unambiguously that only one person was devoted to engineering work, it would be necessary to write:

[He was] devoted to engineering work and a member of a military group.

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You are correct. Your friend's interpretation would fall under Definition 3b:

a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering

if that individual also happens to serve in the military.

I'm not going to cite MLA, I'm merely going to interpret what the dictionary says:

a member of a military group devoted to engineering work

The group is devoted to engineering work, so, presumably, engineers are part of the unit. But not everyone in the group is going to be a trained engineer – the unit will have support roles, such as those who drive heavy equipment, welders, etc. They are called "engineers," not because they are trained in engineering, but because they happen to be members of a military group devoted to engineering work (as opposed to people who work in base finance, base legal, or the communications squadron).

Incidentally, if your friend is thinking that's an odd definition of engineer, he's not alone. Many dictionaries don't even list this meaning of engineer, let alone list it as the first meaning (see Collins, Compact Oxford, and Macmillan, e.g.). I believe it's highly unlikely that individual members of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers would refer to themselves as an "engineer," unless they also happened to be a trained engineer holding an engineering degree, or unless they were referring to themselves as an aggregate, like the dictionary did in its example sentence:

We engineers were called in to repair the canal.

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