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Prosecutors have filed charges against a man who was shot when he allegedly tried to rob an Independence homeowner in the middle of the night.

It seems, to me, to be having two meanings.

The first one is that "a man who was shot when robbing a homeowner was charged by prosecutor."

The second one is that "a man who was shot previously was charged by prosecutor when he attempted another robbery."

According to the context, it is most likely that the author was trying to express the first meaning. But how is it possible to know which one of those two meanings he was trying to express if I do not have any context clue? Is there a way to do such thing?

I think it is possible to attain the second meaning with a simple comma...

Prosecutors have filed charges against a man who was shot, when he allegedly tried to rob an Independence homeowner in the middle of the night.

By making the "when..." parenthetical, it becomes easy to make the sentence mean the second meaning.

But how can I make the sentence mean only the first meaning without changing the structure of the sentence?

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  • The fact that there is no comma in that first statement does, in my view, reduce it to a single meaning. – Robusto Sep 13 '15 at 14:47
  • To the first meaning? But it is kind of tricky, for most of the people try not to use comma before the subordinate clause. – sooeithdk Sep 13 '15 at 14:49
  • This is quite unambiguous to me. What is unclear to me is how you came about your second interpretation. You cannot introduce a comma to reduce ambiguity; in fact, a comma creates it. The clause beginning when is not non-restrictive — i.e., it is essential, for why would you prosecute a man who's been shot? – Jake Regier Sep 13 '15 at 15:51
  • It is nearly always possible to construe alternative meanings for just about any sentence. Nobody does, though, because it takes too long, and once you’ve managed to conjure up some highly unlikely meaning, the conversation has moved on, and you’ve lost the thread. In your case here, the second meaning is actually not possible at all due to a tense mismatch: treating “who was shot” as the entire appositive and removing it yields an ungrammatical sentence: “Prosecutors have filed charges against a man when he allegedly tried to rob…”. Present (perfect) + (simple) past = mismatch. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 13 '15 at 15:57
  • Actually, it was just a sentence from a newspaper, and as I explained above, it is unlikely that someone will ever interpret it as my second meaning. But there are some instances that sentences can be quite ambiguous. For example: There is something about the man that scares me. Does it mean that there is something that scares you about the man, or does it mean that the man that scares you have something about him? – sooeithdk Sep 13 '15 at 15:58
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Use the progressive form there and the meaning is unambiguous:

Prosecutors have filed charges against a man who was shot while trying to rob an Independence homeowner in the middle of the night.

And before you can raise the tortured objection that this sentence could also mean the prosecutors were trying to commit the robbery, let me assure you that nobody would ever confuse this in real life.

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