1

I read a sentence,

John has published research in academic journals of philosophy and law.

The author meant John has published research in academic journals of philosophy and in academic journals of law. But one could take the sentence to mean John has published research in academic journals that cover both philosophy and law.

I remember reading an article about these sorts of 'and' constructions; I don't have any sufficiently specific keywords in mind to search for the answer.

Do you know what keywords relate to these sorts of constructions?

  • I am sure this is a duplicate – mplungjan Jan 21 '14 at 16:54
  • 2
    The simplest way to resolve the ambiguity is to insert "of" before "law". – David Schwartz Jan 21 '14 at 17:11
  • You could look up 'syntactic ambiguity' and 'attachment ambiguity' and try to decide between them. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 21 '14 at 17:57
  • Prob­a­ble du­pli­cate of ear­lier ques­tion, [What is the name of the am­bi­gu­ity in the phrase ”I want to visit clubs with at­trac­tive wom­en’?((english.stackexchange.com/q/120300/2085). – tchrist Jan 5 at 17:43
7

This is an example of what's called an Attachment Ambiguity.
It's very common in English, especially at the end of a sentence, for two major reasons

  1. English is a right-branching language, and thus tends to add qualifications at the end
  2. English prepositional phrases and adverbs may occur in many different locations

Together this means that a final qualification may refer
either to the constituent it's closest to,
or to some earlier constituent in the sentence.
It's ambiguous about what it's attached to.

For example, the sentence below

  • She saw a cat hissing at a dog on a fence.

can mean

  • She saw [a cat on a fence] hissing at a dog.

or it can mean that the dog was on the fence,
or it can mean they both were;
or it can mean that she was on the fence,
or it can mean that they all were.

In speech this is not a problem, because intonation and rhythm always distinguish the sense.

But in writing, it's important to be aware of potential attachment ambiguities,
in case you don't want to be ambiguous. Though in fact most people don't notice, or care.

That's why it's also important to be aware of them in reading, too,
because people may not be intending to be understood the way you first suspect.

  • 1
    +1 The Adamantine Law of Written English: Whatever can be misunderstood will be. – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 21 '14 at 20:56
0

I can only suggest that it is a kind of zeugma.

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