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It is a description about a skill of an hero in a game and it goes like this:

The spell can cause much damage to enemies with special effects on them.

After I wrote it down, I wondered: would a native English speaker understand its intended meaning? I'm concerned that there may be two ways to understand this sentence:

  1. This spell would cause damage to enemies who already carry special effects on themselves.

  2. This spell would use its special effects to cause damage to enemies.

I want to express the meaning of the first sentence. Is the original wording ambiguous? Is there a simple way to make it unambiguous?

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  • Here is a similar question.
    – Octopus
    Nov 4, 2015 at 1:51
  • I immediately understood option 1 and never saw option 2 until you pointed it out, and I think most people would not interpret it that way (2) because that’s not how a native speaker would word it if that’s what they meant.
    – Jim
    Nov 4, 2015 at 2:08
  • Option 1 is clear to me. Use it. Nov 4, 2015 at 4:29
  • Also change "would" to "will." Nov 4, 2015 at 4:30
  • Just replace "with" in your original sentence with "who have". By the way, if you wanted to mean option 2, place a comma after "enemies".
    – JHCL
    Nov 4, 2015 at 12:52

1 Answer 1

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You are generally correct that one must be careful when using prepositional phrases (with special effects, on them) to make the antecedent clear. When it's not clear, the reader might infer either of two interpretations.

In this example, because on them modifies effects, we just need to figure out whether with special effects modifies spell or enemies. However, since we know that the antecedent is plural ("on them"), then the only valid antecedent is enemies.

Thus, the correct interpretation must be #1.

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  • -1 The issue isn't the antecedent of "on them," it's the attachment of "with..." (to either the noun phrase "enemies" or the verb phrase "cause much damage...").
    – herisson
    Nov 4, 2015 at 3:02
  • You are correct that the antecedent of "on them" is not really at issue. However, knowing what "them" refers to is the key to unlocking this mystery and removing the perceived ambiguity.
    – Nonnal
    Nov 4, 2015 at 3:07

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