I'm reading a book talking about prepositions in English. The following sentence is from it.

The child stroked the cat under the table

The author told us that "under the table" is modifying child stroked the cat. Is that correct? Why can't I understand it as modifying cat? Is there any rules for this kind of cases? Thanks.

  • 2
    You could interpret it as modifying "cat"; grammatically, that is correct. It's ambiguous. But, the interpretation that makes the most sense to me is that it is modifying "stroked." – herisson Aug 31 '15 at 3:35
  • 1
    There are two, in my mind, equally probable interpretations: 1. The child is sitting at the table (e.g., for a meal) and is reaching down under the table to stroke the cat. 2. The child is squatting down under the table stroking the cat (also under the table). What make #2 equally probable is that it is a child doing the stroking. "Mr Perkins stroked the cat under the table" would likely be interpreted as in #1, unless other context established that Mr Perkins was crouching under the table. In all cases the cat is under the table thus that's where the stroking is taking place as well. – Jim Aug 31 '15 at 3:41
  • It is ambiguous, and without further context one might easily interpret it either way. It does strongly suggest that the cat was under the table, while not suggesting that the child was under the table. But the stroking happened under the table. So the question is, did we already know that there was only one possible cat, or do we need to clarify which cat? The one out on the porch, or the one under the table? In that case, clearly "under the table" modifies cat. But if we are answering "Where did she stroke the cat?" then "under the table" modifies stroked. – Brian Hitchcock Aug 31 '15 at 7:34
  • English is imprecise. The sentence could be understood to mean the child stroked the cat that was under the table, or the child, using his hand under the table, stroked the cat. It could even be understood to mean that the child was under the table as he stroked the cat. But, absent any additional context, that third interpretation would be considered unlikely, so the reader would envision either of the first two, both of which imply the exact same scenario, so picking between them is unnecessary and the reader would not bother. The author is wrong to imply it's not ambiguous. – Hot Licks Sep 30 '15 at 13:03

Generally speaking, the placement of the prepositional phrase will tell you what role it plays in the sentence.

Adverbial phrases that modify the entire sentence usually go first:

  1. Under the table, the child stroked the cat.

This is more clearly the case for lone introductory adverbs:

Unfortunately, the child was unable to stroke the cat under the table.

Otherwise, immediate proximity counts towards the meaning. To modify "the child," if it's the child who's under the table:

  1. The child under the table stroked the cat.

Perhaps the cat wasn't under the table, but sitting nearby. To modify "the cat," if it's the cat that's under the table:

  1. The child stroked the cat under the table.

Perhaps the child wasn't under the table but reached to stroke the cat, which was.

It's possible to have a prepositional phrase modify the verb. Here's an adverbial phrase of manner:

  1. The child stroked the cat under the chin.

Notice that the placement of the prepositional phrase is the same in sentences 3 and 4. Moving the phrase in sentence 4 isn't possible: "stroke" wants its object, "the cat," immediately following. You have to rely on the semantics of stroking and chins.

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