I want to visit clubs with attractive women.

This phrase can be interpreted in two ways:

  • I want to visit clubs myself, but the clubs I visit should have attractive women.

  • I want to take attractive women to clubs; the clubs themselves may or may not already have attractive women.

Is there a name for this ambiguity? It seems fairly common. I want to say "dangling participle", but I'm pretty sure that's wrong.

Is this the equivalent of Grouch Marx's "I shot an elephant in my pajamas... how he got into my pajamas, I'll never know"?

  • 2
    Related, at least, if not downright what you're looking for.
    – Robusto
    Jul 24, 2013 at 20:33
  • 3
    A dangling modifier, I would say. In fact the Wikipedia article specifically mentions the Groucho Marx example. The whole quote is then a paraprosdokian, but only the whole phrase, not just the first part.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 24, 2013 at 20:41
  • @RegDwighт This should be an answer.
    – bib
    Jul 24, 2013 at 21:59
  • 6
    This is what's called an Attachment Ambiguity in the trade. The ambiguosity comes from the uncertainty as to which constituent the participial phrase is sposta be attached to. In a right-branching language, ambiguities of this kind are unavoidable in sentences with several subordinate constituents. Jan 20, 2023 at 23:09
  • 2
    @Mari-Lou Thank you for the links, and it is kind of you to take a relaxed view. It accords with my own approach to closures: closure is not a trivial matter because it implies that the closer has a complete and exhaustive knowledge of the matter and that there is nothing new to be written on it. Apart from the simplest cases, such a view is frequently wrong and is sometimes the result of hubris.
    – Anton
    Jan 21, 2023 at 22:22

6 Answers 6


Your sentence contains an example of ambiguity resulting from a misrelated construction. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines misrelated as follows:

Not attached grammatically to the word or phrase intended by the meaning, either joined to the wrong word or phrase, or completely unattached.

Although terms such as misrelated, dangling, hanging, unattached, etc. are most commonly applied to participles, verbless phrases can also be misrelated.

The offending misrelation in your sentence is not a participle but a prepositional phrase.

  • Though near-identical structures are both grammatically acceptable and unambiguous: I want to visit clubs with my brother. I want to visit clubs with decent beers. Jul 24, 2013 at 22:01
  • 1
    Aren't those unambiguous solely due to context? If someone was studying English purely grammatically and didn't know what "brother" or "beers" meant, this could still be ambiguous?
    – user3065
    Jul 24, 2013 at 23:05
  • 1
    How on earth can someone study a natural language without recourse to meaning at some level? Though (as Chomsky rightly emphasised) the study of syntax per se is very important and enlightening, it must never be seen as trumping what the speaker / writer is trying to say - which must also take into account semantics and pragmatics. Aug 8, 2013 at 2:39
  • 3
    @barrycarter,Edwin: I think the inherent ambiguity is always there in the construction itself - it's just a bit hard sometimes to think of a context where the "less likely" one might apply. A brewery salesman, for example, might be remonstrating with his boss that if he's to be sent round some clubs to drum up more business, he only wants to take decent beer [samples] with him, not the cheap rubbish they usually sell. Nov 19, 2014 at 17:17

I think this is called Amphiboly. The first example I ever read was the phrase "half baked chicken".


This is just syntactic ambiguity in that the lack of punctuation has allowed multiple meanings. Due to this ambiguity, someone without prior knowledge about penguins could fail to correctly interpret the title's meaning.

Sennet, Adam, "Ambiguity," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ambiguity/#SyntAmbi.


It looks to me like a misplaced modifier.

There's an excellent article, from opentextbc.ca, that outlines the different types of mistakes made with modifiers. They define the term:

A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is placed too far from the word or words it modifies. Misplaced modifiers make the sentence awkward and sometimes unintentionally humorous.

The examples make this even clearer. Here's one example from the article that illustrates the parallel:

Incorrect: The patient was referred to the physician with stomach pains.

Correct: The patient with stomach pains was referred to the physician.

The incorrect sentence reads as if it is the physician who has stomach pains! What the writer means is that the patient has stomach pains.

The article has a lot more examples, which you can look through to see if it's exactly what you're describing.


For the headline "Scientists discover emperor penguin colony in Antarctica using satellite images", refer to this section of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CoGEL):

(CoGEL § 15;59) Unattached nonfinite and verbless clauses

It is considered to be an error when the understood subject of the clause is not identifiable with the subject of the matrix clause, and perhaps does not appear in the sentence at all:

  • ?Driving to Chicago that night, a sudden thought struck me. [1]
  • ?Since leaving her, life has seemed pointless. [2]
  • ?Walking down the boardwalk, a tall building came into view. [3]

In these examples the implied subject of the clauses is presumably I, but I does not occur as the subject of the matrix clauses. If we wish to keep the nonfinite clauses as they are, we rephrase the matrix clauses to introduce I as subject; for example :

  • Driving to Chicago that night, I was struck by a sudden thought. [1a]
  • Since leaving her, I have felt that life seemed pointless. [2a]
  • Walking down the boardwalk, I saw a tall building. [3a]

This is a case of unattached nonfinite clause. No particular name is given in this grammar to the ambiguity it might give rise to; in most cases it is nonsense.


(CoGEL § 15.59)

As with [1-3], we can interpret correctly the implied subject in these sentences, but these unattached clauses are frowned upon. Such clauses are totally unacceptable if the sentence provides no means for identifying the implied subject:

  • *Reading the evening paper, a dog started barking.
  • *Using these techniques, a wheel fell off.
  • *A result of the rise in prices, our economy is suffering.

Sometimes the error suggests an absurd interpretation:

  • *Opening the cupboard, a skeleton fell out.
  • *Grilled on charcoal, everyone enjoyed the fish they caught.
  • *Having eaten our lunch, the steamboat departed.
  • The understood subject of the nonfinite clause "using satellite images" is "scientists", which is the subject of the matrix clause "scientists discover ...". So this isn't an unattached nonfinite clause by your definition.
    – HTNW
    Jan 21, 2023 at 21:36
  • @HTNW The definition says "and perhaps does not appear at all", which meaans it_can_ appear; it does appear in this sentence, but it seems to me that the place of the non finite clause does not make clear that it is attached to it.
    – LPH
    Jan 21, 2023 at 21:42
  • The reason the present answer makes no sense as a reply to the OP's question is that it has been transferred from another question (english.stackexchange.com/q/601827/349876) on the ground that that latter was a duplicate of this one (english.stackexchange.com/q/120300/349876).
    – LPH
    Jan 25, 2023 at 19:20

Attachment ambiguity. The prepositional phrase "with attractive women" must be an adjunct of something, but of what? There are two plausible possibilities ("visit" and "clubs"), and that produces the ambiguity.

The sentence is grammatical, and can be (grammatically) parsed in two ways to produce the two alternative meanings.

A dangling modifier is different. We say there is a dangling modifier when the sentence cannot be grammatically parsed to yield the intended meaning. (It might or might not be possible to parse it to yield some other meaning. If there is such a meaning, it might be an absurd one.) Wikipedia's article gives an example "At the age of eight, my family finally bought a dog". Was the family at the age of eight? That is semantically nonsense. If the intended meaning is that the narrator was eight, then the sentence cannot be parsed to yield that meaning.

  • "At the age of eight, my family finally bought the dog" adds yet another ambiguity... maybe the dog is eight.
    – user3065
    Dec 1, 2016 at 20:22
  • 1
    @barrycarter How can you give an age to a family? :) Apr 10, 2017 at 19:29

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