What would you call a sentence that goes something like

The foreman sent a worker to find me with a hammer.

The sentence is ambiguous, and could mean either:

  • The foreman sent a worker to find me holding a hammer; or
  • The foreman sent a worker holding a hammer to find me.

I am looking for a description other than "ambiguous" to explain why the prepositional phrase "with a hammer" is causing ambiguity.

  • 2
    This is called an "attachment ambiguity", because the final PP could be attached to either the NP that precedes it, or to an earlier NP (in this case) or VP. Since English is right-branching, this is a very common occurrence; in speech the intonation would disambiguate. But in writing, the intonation is not represented, so there often simply isn't enough information in the written part to distinguish. See also Garden Path Sentences. – John Lawler Aug 23 '13 at 1:01
  • "The father came to find the groom kissing his bride intently." Father came intently, find intently or groom kissing bride intently? Whose bride, the father's or the groom's? – Blessed Geek Aug 23 '13 at 4:22

Where a descriptive word, phrase or clause is positioned so that it seems to refer to a different object than the one intended, it is often called a misplaced modifier.

Having gone to the store, the grocer gave me the wrong change.

I went to the store, not the grocer, but the proximity of the phrase nearer grocer than me muddles the meaning.

In general, a modifier is placed closest to the term it modifies unless there are other clear bases for understanding the correct linkage.

I picked up the check instead of Fred, the richest in the group

is very different from

The richest in the group, I picked up the tab instead of Fred.

In many cases, without context, it is is difficult to determine to whom the descriptive terms apply.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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