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I'm not a native English speaker and when I read the following sentence (which is taken from a roleplaying manual) I find it to be very confusing because of two possible meanings.

Any "shaken" opponent hit by you is "flat-footed" to your attacks.

This is not exactly the original text: I've removed complicated concepts specific to the game like when the attack should be done or how long the flat-footed condition lasts and I've replaced a list of possible conditions with shaken - I want to ask about the structure of the sentence, not the game (I already have asked about it at RPG.SE and I discovered mt problem is not in the rules but in the language).
It's also very important to understand that shaken and flat-footed are different conditions in the game.

So, I initially read that as
"Any opponent that is shaken and I have hit is now flat-footed"
(While the opponent I have hit is shaken, it's also flat-footed)

The vast majority of people reads that as
"Any opponent you hit while it was shaken"
(If I have hit the hopponent while it was shaken, now it's flat-footed)
...and I see that their option is valid too.

I think it's a sentence parsing problem with the two options being equivalent to:

  1. Any shaken opponent hit by you is flat-footed to your attacks.
  2. Any shaken opponent hit by you is flat-footed to your attacks.

Where the subject of the sentence is bolded Someone also tells me my interpretation is not a viable choice or not how it works, and I'd like to know if they are right.

Is my vision plain wrong because of some English sentence structure rule I'm not aware of?

  • I don’t see a difference in meaning between the two interpretations you list. Do you mean by your first option “Any opponent who is shaken because you hit him/her”? If so, I would agree with you that both interpretations are possible. Without knowing exactly what it means to be shaken in this game, I cannot decide which is the more likely interpretation. Could you include the full, original sentence as well for comparison? – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 15 '14 at 10:15
  • This will probably get voted down/closed as unclear... but it means that blows on a shaken opponent will be more effective than usual because they are flat-footed (from being shaken, NOT because of you hitting them). – user24964 May 15 '14 at 10:17
  • @TheMathemagician is it clearer now? – Zachiel May 15 '14 at 10:36
  • @JanusBahsJacquet do you see the difference in meaning after my edit? (the original sentence had "shaken, frightened or panicked" and "hit by you this round" and "is flat-footed until the end of your next turn" - shaken is a condition, a mechanical tag that an opponent has or not) – Zachiel May 15 '14 at 10:36
  • In that case, I agree: the sentence is ambiguous. The way the sentence is worded, there is no way of knowing whether the opponent must be shaken, frightened, or panicked already when you hit them in this round, or whether they become so as a result of your hitting them. I would suggest to the people who wrote the manual that they rephrase the sentence to make it clear which is the case. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 15 '14 at 11:38
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Is my vision plain wrong because of some English sentence structure rule?

No. English sentences are often ambiguous. But you might still be wrong for other reasons.

Let me try to rephrase the two interpretations:

  1. An already-shaken opponent, when hit by you, becomes flat-footed to your attacks.
  2. An opponent previously hit by you becomes flat-footed to your attacks whenever they are shaken.

One of these interpretations probably makes more sense within the internal logic of the game. If so, the "vast majority of people" you've spoken to might not have even noticed the ambiguity because they read it with what was to them the obvious interpretation. To resolve the ambiguity, I think you have to look at the context, both the surrounding rules and the text explaining the motivation behind them. Ask yourself: Does being in the "shaken" condition cause other effects similar to interpretation 1? Does having been previously hit by you cause effects similar to interpretation 2?

Speaking of context, I wonder if there are lots of rules governing the transitions in and out of these conditions or states of being. Perhaps the manual spelled out the first transition rule in great detail, and expected you fill in the details (by analogy) on subsequent, tersely-stated rules.

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Please note I've edited this answer for two interpretations of the question.

The problem is not the adjective subject layout as I previously said (below), but conditions for fulfilling the requirement.

Any shaken opponent hit by you is flat-footed to your attacks.

In case 1:

The opponent may or may not be shaken. But when they are hit by a player, they become shaken. After this the opponent, who is now shaken and was hit by the player, should now be flat-footed.

In case 2:

An opponent, who was originally shaken, is now hit by the player. They should now become flat-footed.

I believe only case 2 is valid however as "hit by you" is active: it is the 'trigger' whereas the shaken is the (only) 'condition'. For case 1 to be a valid interpretation, the wording should be "who has been hit by you [previously]" to reflect the past-nature of the hitting.

Original Answer:

If I understand the question correctly, the confusion comes because the subject has an adjective, but the adjective is actually part of the subject and should not be spilt from it.

For example, in a standard deck of cards, there are red cards and black cards. It's not that these cards are red and black (referring to their backgrounds), but the red and black are the type of cards they are.

So a card that is red is not the same as a red card since a card that is red implies the card has a red colour to it, and not that it is a red-card type. A King of Hearts is a red card, but is not a card that is red (because it's white).

This ambiguity is just part of the English language.

Your initial sentence may remove the ambiguity by using Capitals to denote the name of a type or keyword (e.g. Shaken Opponent in case 2), or perhaps "Whilst shaken, any opponent hit ..." as in case 1.

  • I think I understand your question a lot more now... I'm going to type another answer. – kjhf May 15 '14 at 11:38
  • I understand they're two different concepts. Where was that unclear in my answer? Your opponent will have to be shaken by someone at sometime, otherwise they won't get flat-footed! – kjhf May 15 '14 at 12:02
  • Ah, you maybe read a comment I posted and deleted a few seconds later. "But when they are hit by a player, they become shaken." was the part that baffled me, since I never mentioned how hitting could make an opponent shaken. Did you mean "then become shaken", using the comma as a time sequence separator? – Zachiel May 15 '14 at 14:17

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