In the sentence like "I ate the ice cream, which took only 5 mins."

Isn't it ambiguous in the ways that 'which' can refer to both the ice cream and the time it took to make/serve or the act of eating and the time I took to eat it up?

I appreciate your sincere answers.

  • 2
    Yes. It is ambiguous as it stands at present. If you mean it took you five minutes to eat, I would add the word me after took. I ate the ice cream, which only took me five minutes. That way it is clear that you are referring to the eating. If you mean it took five minutes to make, then you need to add the words to make at the end after mins.
    – WS2
    Jan 6 '16 at 20:24
  • There is no ambiguity because of the comma after cream. Removing the comma would possibly be ambiguous if there were different ice creams that took varying amount of time to do something unspecified here. For example if we were testing the chilling times of various ice cream recipes and one recipe took only 5 mins to chill while another took 10, and I were asked which ice cream I ate I could respond, "I ate the ice cream which only took 5 minutes."
    – Jim
    Jan 6 '16 at 22:07
  • I agree with @WS2 that there is an ambiguity. It's just hard to hear. The poster's sentence is just as ambiguous as "I hit the dog, which was loud." This sentence is ambiguous between the reading "I hit the dog, which hit was loud" and "I hit the dog, which dog was loud." On both readings, the "which" initiates an unrestrictive relative clause. The presence of the comma does not help resolve the ambiguity.
    – DyingIsFun
    Jan 7 '16 at 1:56
  • 1
    There's no ambiguity. In order for there to be ambiguity, there would have to be mention of some other activity other than eating in the main clause. There's absolutely nothing upon which to base any inference about making or serving the ice cream. If there had been, maybe it could be ambiguous, depending on the syntax and context of that syntax. For example, "I ate the ice cream that had melted, which took about five minutes." This creates ambiguity as we don't know if it took five minutes to eat or to melt. As it stands, though, your sentence only talks about eating, nothing else. Jan 7 '16 at 2:02
  • @BenjaminHarman Suppose the preceding sentence had been I made some elaborate ice cream which took me the whole afternoon, so I decided not to eat any before the party. What then?
    – WS2
    Jan 8 '16 at 23:26

There is no ambiguity. The first clause refers only to eating the ice-cream, so that is what the time relates to. There is nothing about making or serving it.


No, "which" refers to the preceding sentence. The structure assigned by McCawley in TSPE would be:

[S [S I ate the ice cream,] [S which took only 5 minutes] ]

where "which" and "I ate the ice cream" are coreferential. It's an interesting construction, because ordinarily sentences are not thought of as having reference, but here, apparently the clause refers to an event. The appositive relative clause, if "which" were replaced by its antecedent, would come out:

[S [NP [S I ate the ice cream] ] took only 5 minutes ]

which is not grammatical until the sentential subject is nominalized:

My eating the ice cream took only 5 minutes.


Unlike others, I feel the sentence is not well written. The only reason others feel it isn't ambiguous is because you told them what the sentence is supposed to mean. Without that, it is highly likely that people would have to stop and think. Consider, "It only took me five minutes to eat the ice cream." If you have to ask "Is there something wrong with my sentence?" it's a good sign that there is something wrong.

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