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On the third floor stood a salesman with one artificial leg.

On the third floor stood a salesman with two artificial legs.

On the third floor stood a salesman with three artificial legs.

On the third floor stood a salesman with four artificial legs.

I'm not sure whether the preposition with can be interpreted as 'in possession of' or 'characterized by' and whether the interpretation can be influenced by the number of legs.

I did an exhaustive and exhausting search before asking here, but search results suggest that the interpretation depends on what the relation is between the 'salesman' and the 'legs' and I don't understand how this can be helpful on the linguistic plan.

Can anybody explain, please?

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The only decisive factor in this ambiguity is context, I'd say, so the syntax tells you nothing, not even with four legs, or a thousand. –  Cerberus Sep 8 '12 at 20:48
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Thus the proverbial "1000 words to describe a picture". This isn't much different from the sentence, "It was dark." in that it requires other sentences around it to establish what it is, and what kind of dark is being discussed. –  Jim Sep 8 '12 at 23:00
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What exactly is the question here? Is it "Is 'with' ambiguous?" ? Yes, it is. Do you speak a language in which there are two different unambiguous words for the two ideas? Also, exactly what kind of search did you do? –  Mitch Sep 9 '12 at 0:58
    
This question can be improved by showing the actual results of research, rather than just claiming research was done. –  MετάEd Sep 10 '12 at 14:53
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1 Answer

Well, your problem is that it's ambiguous, mostly the first sentence. When I first read the sentences, I thought he was wearing two artificial legs. Then I read the next two sentences and I thought "Wait hold on!" People only have two legs. I reread it slowly and realized you meant carrying two, three, and four, legs, respectively. Then I was plain confused what you meant.

To remove this ambiguity, we must rephrase.

On the first floor stood a salesman carrying two artificial legs.

On the first floor stood a salesman wearing two artificial legs.

The meaning is now clear. No more creepy three-legged salesmen.

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However, the ambiguity may be intentional. Such things are the basis of humour and word-play. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 8 '12 at 20:47
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Only when a sentence is taken out of context is this kind of ambiguity a problem. In context, people are usually very capable of resolving semantic ambiguity. –  SevenSidedDie Sep 8 '12 at 21:35
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The sentences would have made more sense if their order was reversed. That way, one could at least presume the salesman was having a good day selling his artificial legs. –  J.R. Sep 8 '12 at 22:47
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@J.R. It cannot be such a 'good day' for him if a salesman had to be selling his artificial legs -- that would be his last resort when he is broke. [Problems of resolving semantic ambiguity?] –  Kris Sep 9 '12 at 7:13
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