Being a Maia didn't stop Elendil and Gil-Galad from kicking his butt.

As of now, this is an apt comment on this question at SFF (Why does Sauron fear Aragorn if he is a Maia?).

I wonder whether, regardless of canon facts, this sentence admits the intended reading (i.e., Sauron's being a Maia...) as well as a reading where Elendil, Gil-Galad, or both are Maiar, or both readings.

To highlight the suspected ambiguity, let's consider a simpler version.

Being a Maia didn't stop Elendil from kicking his butt.

Who is the Maia here (and whose butt has been kicked)? Can the gerund be modified so as to force the reader into the correct reading? Or do we just rely on context in the parsing?

  • Certainly it's about five ways ambiguous, absent any context. (Eg, is "butt" the butt roast laying on the floor that belongs to "him"?) And as to parsing, it's impossible to say whether "Being a Maia" modifies Elendil and Gil-Galad or "him". – Hot Licks Nov 19 '15 at 23:32
  • @HotLicks I tagged this as syntax, which makes it sufficiently clear I am not wondering about how to interpret "butt". As for your comments on Hellion's answer, I linked the original question. What more context would you have? – anemone Nov 20 '15 at 10:06

I'd call it sloppy language, personally. To clarify the intended meaning, I would have said:

Sauron's being a Maia didn't stop Elendil and Gil-Galad from kicking his butt.

To suggest the other meaning, I would write:

Being Maiar didn't stop Elendil and Gil-Galad from kicking his butt.

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The difference in number between the subject and object ("a Maia", vs. "Elendil and Gil-Galad") saves the sentence from the ambiguity you suggest; as written, there is only one way to interpret it that does not have an error in numerical agreement.

However, this is a fairly minor point to hang your entire parsing on, so it would be beneficial to confirm to the reader that you didn't just accidentally screw up your agreement; including an explicit pronoun or noun for exactly who is the Maia here would eliminate any doubt.

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  • The number difference is only significant if we know that "a Maia" is not a term that means, say, "a gay couple". – Hot Licks Nov 20 '15 at 1:18
  • That's true, but hopefully it has already been made clear earlier in the passage. – Hellion Nov 20 '15 at 1:33
  • What "earlier"?? The question starts off with that line, with no context. – Hot Licks Nov 20 '15 at 2:05
  • Earlier in the conversation, then; or, since this is a Tolkien-based comment, hopefully the reader knows what a Maia is by virtue of being familiar with Tolkien's mythology. – Hellion Nov 20 '15 at 5:12
  • If context is important it should be explained in the question. – Hot Licks Nov 20 '15 at 5:14

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