English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

The sun's rays are primarily responsible for skin damage.

To me this sounds like it means that the primary activity of the sun's rays is damaging skin. However the intention is obviously that the primary cause of skin damage is the sun's rays.

Is this sentence actually wrong, or just ambiguous?

share|improve this question
By the way, feel free to correct my grammar, punctuation etc. if needed. – Jake Jan 18 '11 at 8:59
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I would say it was ambiguous; I originally read it as you intended, but it could be read the other way as well.

Simply put it like you already have in your question:

The primary cause of skin damage is UV radiation from the Sun.

share|improve this answer
It is formally ambiguous, but I doubt that it is pragmatically so. – Colin Fine Jan 18 '11 at 17:24

I would say it is ambiguous and also incorrect from a logical point of view. Here are a couple of ways to rephrase the sentence without changing too many of the words:

The sun's rays are the the primary cause of skin damage.

Or using the passive,

Skin damage is primarily caused by the sun's rays.

Hope that helps you.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.