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One of the Facebook configuration features has the following label: "If you don't want a Facebook account after you pass away, you can request to have your account permanently deleted."

My friend claims that this phrase is ambiguous, with one possible interpretation implying that one can have worldly wishes after death, i.e. "after you pass away you can request X" or "after you pass away you may decide that you don't want X" are semantically equivalent to the given phrase or parts of it (which he finds hilarious for this reason).

Is it possible? Can this phrase be interpreted semantically in such a ridiculous way in terms of grammar? Or, perhaps, it should use different tenses to warrant such an interpretation, e.g. "If you don't want a Facebook account after you [had] passed away..."

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  • I think the whole thing is very unfortunately worded, possibly by a non-native speaker. Were I writing it I would say: If you do not want your Facebook account to continue in the sad event of your demise, you can request for it to be deleted on death. This has now got me interested in whether someone holding a Power of Attorney, or an Executor to someone's will, can order an account to be deleted.
    – WS2
    Nov 6, 2015 at 16:17
  • @WS2: I'm pretty sure they can, though I don't know what evidence they require. I have successfully asked Facebook to "memorialize" the accounts of several deceased friends, just by making the request and linking to an obituary.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 6, 2015 at 17:12
  • Actually, even "regular" relatives can request the deletion of an account.
    – miranor
    Nov 8, 2015 at 7:30

3 Answers 3

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I would say it depends on the context. With no further information your friend is right. However sentences like this usually don't appear in a vacuum.

Here is the original sentence:

"If you don't want a Facebook account after you pass away, you can request to have your account permanently deleted."

At the moment with a single comma, we have:

(If you don't want a Facebook account after you pass away), (you can request to have your account permanently deleted.)

The implication is that you can ask at any time, for example if you realise you are slipping into Alzheimer's. We simply assume that it doesn't mean you do the asking after your death. To that extent, your friend is right--the sentence allows the amusing possibility that we could ask after death.

However, we don't have the full context, maybe it goes on to say how you ask--for example by authorising an executor to carry out the request after your passing or by notifying Facebook now and authorising a named friend to do the final deed.

If you purposely wanted to create ambiguity and thus support your friend's meaning, you could add another comma, thus:

"If you don't want a Facebook account, after you pass away, you can request to have your account permanently deleted."

This can be split at the first comma as follows:

(If you don't want a Facebook account), (after you pass away, you can request to have your account permanently deleted.)

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  • "We simply assume that it doesn't mean you do the asking after your death." Exactly, it's an assumption. But grammatically it can mean you can ask after you're dead.
    – A.P.
    Nov 6, 2015 at 16:40
  • @AP - On re-reading the question and other answers I see that I made an unwarranted assumption. I'll change my wording. Nov 6, 2015 at 17:03
  • Many sentences in English (or any other natural language) are full of potential ambiguities that we usually don't notice because of our understanding of the real world.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 6, 2015 at 17:14
  • "However, we don't have the full context, maybe it goes on to say how you ask..." - no, it doesn't. This is the exact label that appears next to a checkbox that you need to mark in order to activate this option.
    – miranor
    Nov 8, 2015 at 7:32
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I think your friend is right. If you believe in afterlife and that people can wish for things in the hereafter, this phrase can be grammatically interpreted to mean:

If you die and decide you don't want a Facebook account anymore, make a request, and it will be permanently deleted.

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Yes, he's right, but the ambiguity could be characterized better. Consider this example:

I will want to have a facebook account after I pass away.

It could mean either that the wanting will happen after death, or that the having will happen after death. That is because it is a complex sentence, and the modifier "after I pass away" could modify either the subordinate clause "(I) to have a facebook account" or the main clause "I will want to have a facebook account".

So there are two structures for this sentence:

[[I will want [to have a facebook account]] after I pass away]
[I will want [[to have a facebook account] after I pass away]]

Correspondingly, in the original example, "after you pass away" could modify either the entire if-clause, "you don't want a facebook account" or just the subordinate clause "(you to have) a facebook account".

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