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"Nellie washed the dishes in the sink."

This sentence is ambiguous, and the prepositional phrase can be read two ways--either as 'Nellie washed (in the sink) the dishes', in which case it is an adverbial phrase, or 'Nellie washed the dishes (that were in the sink, but not those, say, on the table)', in which case it is an adjectival phrase.

Moving the prepositional phrase doesn't help. If I say "In the sink, Nellie washed the dishes" it sounds as though Nellie is standing in the sink.

Does this show a fundamental problem with English syntax? I'm pretty sure German syntax would deal with this more precisely.

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    Similar: "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." - Groucho Marx – Damkerng T. May 22 '16 at 10:32
  • Ignoring the humorous meaning (a dangling modifier) where it was Nellie that was in the sink, pragmatically there's little to choose between your two readings since they both entail that Nellie washed some dishes and those dishes were in the sink. Syntactically, in the sink is neither an adverb phrase nor an adjective phrase, but a preposition phrase headed by the prep "in". Its function in your first reading is adjunct of place modifying "washed", and in the second its function is post-modifier of "dishes". – BillJ May 22 '16 at 12:36
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    If I make it "Nellie washed the dishes, in the sink" , does the comma eliminate the ambiguity? – Dunsanist May 22 '16 at 13:00
  • Unambiguous: Nellie washed the dishes that were in the sink. If you just meant that Nellie used the sink (as opposed to the bathtub or the garden hose) to wash the dishes, you have an issue. But it's rarely necessary to point out that "The sink is where Nellie washed the dishes." (See what I did?) – Steven Littman May 22 '16 at 14:18
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    I'm pretty sure German syntax would deal with this more precisely. Sounds ominous. – deadrat May 22 '16 at 17:04
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That some sentences are syntactically ambiguous is not a fundamental problem of English syntax. Context and intonation are usually enough to guide hearers in constructing the intended phrase structure (that is, non-ambiguous syntactic structure) of the spoken or written utterance. Such a process is called disambiguation, and we do it all the time. Subconsciously. Instantly.

Besides prepositional phrases being ambiguous between adverbs and noun phrase modifiers, stacking quantifiers (the use of multiple quantifiers) also exhibits syntactic ambiguity.

Consider:

  1. Every man loves some woman.

This can be interpreted in two ways, depending on which quantifier ('every' or 'some') is given primary scope. The two interpretations are:

  1. Some particular woman is such that every man loves her.
  2. Every man is such that he loves some (potentially different) woman.

Given the unlikelihood of interpretation (2), whenever we encounter (1), we usually hear it as meaning (3).

In the case of prepositional phrases, similar clues also exist to help us hear a particular intended reading.


A final point about German. According to lore, German philosopher and great-grandfather of modern formal semantics Gottlob Frege actually despised ambiguity and wanted to create a perfect language that was completely free of it. This suggests that German isn't as naturally disambiguated as you think.

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It is an ambiguity only of the written representation of the language. In speech, the two meanings would receive different intonation and syntactic micro-pauses.

I can't represent the intonational differences, but the phrasal units would be like this:

Nellie washed ...... the dishes in the sink.  [which dishes]

Nellie washed the dishes.....in the sink.   [where she chose to wash them]

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