30

I am having a debate with someone about possible interpretations of a sentence and we have come to a stalemate. The sentence is as follows:

"I'm at home eating vegan cheese in my underpants and singing Bushes of Love."

The other party argues that my sentence technically says that I am eating vegan cheese which is inside my underpants, when the intended meaning was that I am eating vegan cheese while wearing underpants.

My argument is that his interpretation of the sentence makes no sense, but I can't quite find an actual rule to refer to. I could see it making more sense if I had an article in front of vegan cheese, like "I'm at home eating the vegan cheese in my underpants and singing Bushes of Love".

But as it is without an article if I did intend to say that the vegan cheese was in my underpants, the way I said it would sound very wrong. It seems to me that without an article in front of vegan cheese it was used as a mass noun, uncountable and therefore interpreting it as being a countable chunk of vegan cheese that could be in anything in any subsequent part of the sentence seems wrong.

His argument is that the problem is in the ordering - that while with some common sense my actual meaning might be clear, the sentence was grammatically incorrect and I technically said that the vegan cheese was in my underpants because I should have said "I am in my underpants eating vegan cheese".

Is there a rule I can refer to when it comes to accurate ways to interpret this sentence? Which one of us is correct? Could the vegan cheese really be in my underpants?


Research I have done:

My attempts to find a concrete rule that might be relevant to this scenario led me to the following resources. To me none of these resources suggested that my sentence was technically incorrect. However, because I still was not sure what specific rule I could reference for him or if I was missing a specific rule proving me wrong our debate continued. This is why I decided to ask the question here.

59

Your friend is wrong: the sentence is grammatically completely correct with the meaning you intended. There is no rule that requires the prepositional phrase "in my underpants" to modify the immediately preceding noun phrase "vegan cheese." Not even a "technical" one. It sounds like the kind of pseudo-rule that would be invented by someone under the misimpression that the rules of English syntax are designed to avoid ambiguity. In fact, this sentence, like many others, is just syntactically ambiguous. That's not a problem; many sentences are. Context makes it clear what you mean, in this case as in many others.

Here is a basic summary from "Linguapress.com Essential English Grammar" of where verb phrase modifiers (like the prepositional phrase "in my underpants") can go in an English sentence:

adverb phrases (groups of words, usually formed starting with a preposition) can come in three possible places:

a) Before the subject (Notably with short common adverbs or adverb phrases, or sentence adverbs - see below) [...]
b1) After the object (virtually any adverb or adverb phrase can be placed here) [...]
c) In the middle of the verb group. (Notably with short common adverbs of time or frequency)

The grammatical ambiguity arises from positioning rules like these and from the fact that prepositional phrases can be used to modify either noun phrases or verb phrases.

There was a recent Language Log post mentioning the issue of "prepositional phrase attachment": Annals of parsing

Two of the hardest problems in English-language parsing are prepositional phrase attachment and scope of conjunction. For PP attachment, the problem is to figure out how a phrase-final prepositional phrase relates to the rest of the sentence — the classic example is "I saw a man in the park with a telescope". For conjunction scope, the problem is to figure out just what phrases an instance of and is being used to combine.

The title of a recent article offers some lovely examples of the problems that these ambiguities can cause: Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman, "Back to the future? Lessons on inequality, labour markets, and conflict from the Gilded Age, for the present", VOX 8/23/2016. The second phrase includes three ambiguous prepositions (on, from, and for) and one conjunction (and), and has more syntactically-valid interpretations than you're likely to be able to imagine unless you're familiar with the problems of automatic parsing.

See also section 1.2 "Ubiquitous Ambiguity" in "Analyzing Sentence Structure," a chapter from Natural Language Processing with Python by Steven Bird, Ewan Klein and Edward Loper.

Syntactic ambiguity is common in all natural languages. It's not feasible to avoid it when constructing a sentence in English, and trying to do so in general will provide no benefits to your writing. Obviously, it's a good idea to avoid ambiguous syntax when there is a real chance of confusion, but that's not the case with your sentence. Your friend obviously knew what you intended: he's deliberately misinterpreting your sentence.

Here's a similar sentence from the Declaration of Independence, which I would say is a document written in a formal style:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms.

This doesn't mean they wanted redress that was in the most humble terms. It means they petitioned in the most humble terms for redress.

It is neither bad grammar nor bad style to use ambiguous grammatical structures.

  • 36
    So, yes, it's ambiguous whether you or the cheese are in underpants, but context (cheese does not normally wear underpants) gives the most reasonable explanation, and the sentence is not wrong for having two readings. In fact many jokes rely on this. "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know." – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 15 '16 at 20:01
  • 6
    The ambiguity isn't wrong, but it can slow down readers, and may require a reader to read it more than once to figure out that "in your underpants" was referring to to "at home", instead of "vegan cheese", but the meaning is there. – Nelson Aug 16 '16 at 3:00
  • 3
    Compare "I'm eating vegan cheese in my house" ... you're in your house just as you are in your underpants. – rackandboneman Aug 16 '16 at 9:31
  • 2
    Compare also "I'm eating vegan cheese in my favourite bowl". – OrangeDog Aug 16 '16 at 13:39
  • 3
    @Lambie You are mixing up semantic ambiguity with grammatical ambiguity. "I have cheese in my underpants." doesn't mention eating at all. You could have cheese in your underpants while wearing them, while not eating anything at all. But back to the eating... "I'm eating chicken in gravy." Is structurally equivalent, are you now wearing the gravy? This is what sumelic is trying to say. While it may not be semantically ambiguous, it is grammatically ambiguous. – Mr.Mindor Aug 16 '16 at 21:35
23

I was gonna just make this a comment but I had too much to say, because this less pedantry and more "being obnoxious".

"I technically said that the vegan cheese was in my underpants..."

Have him point you to the place in the technical manual where it says that a prepositional phrase must always modify the thing it follows. What if you had left out "at home"?

"I'm eating vegan cheese in my underpants and singing Bushes of Love."

Do you have to move "in my underpants" to the end? But then you're singing into them! Or you move it to the front, and suddenly the CHEESE is singing "Bushes of Love"!

We have four bits of info: "at home", "singing", "eating cheese" and "underpants". You can arrange these in any fashion, and the sentence meaning does not change.

  • "I'm in my underpants eating vegan cheese and singing Bushes Of Love at home."
  • "I'm singing Bushes Of Love in my underpants and eating vegan cheese at home."
  • "I'm at home in my underpants eating vegan cheese and singing Bushes Of Love ."
  • "I'm eating vegan cheese and singing Bushes Of Love in my underpants at home."

On this last one, you could be literally singing INTO your underpants, right? Rolled up like a little megaphone or stuffed in your mouth, I dunno. There are a lot of words you could add to the sentence to remove ambiguity but you know what? That's not the way real people talk.

If you wanna get super technical, you could probably map out the meter of those sentences: You might find that you picked an arrangement of words that suited your speaking rhythm better. You might also find, if you cared to scrutinize" that you added "in my underpants singing" at the end because it's funnier that way.

The rule, if there is one, must surely be "Add words to clarify the meaning of your sentence as needed, but no more." This person (and I've met so many of them over the years) seems to think the rule is "Add words until your meaning couldn't possibly be misconstrued by the most fatuous of listeners."

What's more, if you were actually eating cheese out of your underwear, just as if you were singing into them in my other example, that sentence would not adequately convey that. English (as used) is particularly imprecise in this regard: If you are doing something unusual, you very often have to spell it out. This is pretty sensible really.

Nobody would actually think what your friend said. If you had meant that, you'd have to say:

"I'm eating cheese out of my underwear. Yes, you heard me. I've put vegan cheese in my knickers, thinking they would make for a delightful serving tray."

So, pfeh. The point of talking is communication. And the point of drawing people's attention to obviously wrong possible misinterpretations of someone's words—well, that's what we call "politics".

  • 2
    Time for xkcd.com/169 , probably. – LSpice Aug 16 '16 at 15:57
  • Upvoted for the phrase "rolled up like a megaphone or stuffed in your mouth" – Jeremy Kato Aug 16 '16 at 17:52
11

This is classic -

I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got into my pajamas, I'll never know.

It's a joke, from 1930's Groucho Marx' film Animal Crackers. "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" is fine as is, as it simply means that Groucho woke up, grabbed a gun and fired. It was he, not the elephant who wore the pajamas. This, and other jokes play off the seeming ambiguity involved, but all of these jokes go back to this style. It's likely that Shakespeare planted a similar one in a play or two, I'm not claiming Marx to be the first.

  • 6
    "I am eating cheese in my underpants" "I shot an elephant in my pajamas" - has identical syntax. I have a mother in law, wife and daughter, so I am used to being wrong, but your comment is useless unless you clarify the distinction. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that a 1700+ rep member isn't just trolling. – JoeTaxpayer Aug 16 '16 at 17:46
  • 3
    That's where the tough get going. Identical syntax but not identical semantics (meaning). The elephant could conceivably be in the pajamas (writers often resort to unreal situations) but eating cheese in my underpants doesn't work because unlike shooting something in a place one eats something OUT of something. Just in does not signify that the cheese was being eaten OUT of the underpants. to eat something OFF or OUT of something...not "in". Unless of course, you are a teeny being inside a pair of underpants. – Lambie Aug 16 '16 at 17:56
  • 1
    And that's the education I come here for. Most appreciated. And I concede, similar play on words, but not identical semantics. – JoeTaxpayer Aug 16 '16 at 18:01
  • 1
    I have eaten vegan cheese in my sandwiches before. Not out of my sandwiches. I have no plans to eat vegan cheese in my underpants. – bdsl Aug 16 '16 at 22:48
  • 4
    @Lambie I don't think your assertion that "in" cannot be used in this way is valid. Are you claiming that "I drank coffee in my favourite cup" is an ungrammatical sentence? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 18 '16 at 1:00
5

I can't think of a case where there would be a genuine ambiguity. If the cheese were in the underpants, you'd say, "I'm eating cheese from my underpants". Likewise, you eat ice cream from a bowl, or a candy bar from your pocket. You eat strawberries in your kitchen, or in a submarine.

Could you be eat walnuts in a carrot cake? If you were picking them out and eating them, I'd say that "from" would be more appropriate. If you had a nut allergy, you could show up to the hospital and say "I ate walnuts in a carrot cake", which I suppose is appropriate. But that implies that you also ate the cake. You didn't eat the underpants.

Some sentences have to be understood using semantic knowledge. For instance, "I ate the cheese with a fork" and "I ate the cheese with an olive" are both grammatically correct, and it's up to the listener to figure out the meaning.

  • 2
    I drank water in a cup. I drank water in my kitchen. The listener has to guess at the most likely interpretation. Is the cup a container, or the location of the drinker? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 15 '16 at 20:03
  • 1
    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 what do you think? If you want unambiguous, use mathematical notations. In language you have to consider what makes sense. – njzk2 Aug 16 '16 at 15:35
  • 2
    @njzk2 My point is that syntactically, grammatically, there is often ambiguity. This is why computers can't understand speech very well. They're not yet good enough at extracting the meaning from a sentence. Probability is always involved. Humans use context to choose the most likely interpretation but sometimes get it wrong. As such I feel this answer is wrong, in that it seems to suggest that there is no ambiguity. Language is full of it. Lawyers and comedians make their living from it. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 16 '16 at 15:38
  • 2
    The fact that there exists an alternate way to word it to remove ambiguity doesn't mean the existing format is not ambiguous. This answer could just as easily have been "if you were in the underpants, you'd say 'I'm in my underpants eating cheese'." – David Starkey Aug 16 '16 at 19:13
5

As others point out, the construction is ambiguous, because prepositional phrases can modify various preceding constituents in English. The constituent structure could be any of:

I'm at home eating vegan [cheese in my underpants]  
I'm at home eating [vegan cheese in my underpants]  
I'm at home [eating vegan cheese in my underpants] 

and perhaps others, where the brackets enclose the modified constituent. Which of these is a plausible interpretation, if any, is not a matter of grammar, but one's personal acquaintance with the modalities of cheese possession and consumption. The first above, for instance, would be appropriate if one had the habit of keeping various cheeses in one's underpants and wanted to clarify just which of those one would be at home eating.

1

I disagree with your friend that the only proper interpretation of your sentence involves cheese inside of underpants. However, I agree with him or her in that the sentence is ambiguous and is not completely correct.

The sentence is made up of 5 parts:

  • a main clause: I am
  • two prepositional phrases: at home and in my underpants
  • two participle phrases: eating vegan cheese and singing Bushes of Love.

Because of the ambiguous meaning, commas should be used for clarification, in addition to reordering the phrases to group the prepositional and participle phrases together, respectively. There are multiple ways to accomplish this based on the intended meaning, but I think the best way is this (the 'Oxford comma' is optional):

I'm at home, in my underpants, eating vegan cheese, and singing Bushes of Love.

I see the sentence above as being grouped logically as I am [in this position and this position] [doing this thing and this thing], which is much clearer than the original structure of I am [in a position] [doing something] [oh and also in this position] [oh and also doing this other thing].

It makes sense to group the positional information together: I am at home in my underpants because it is less confusing to have the phrases closer to what they are modifying. The same could be true for the participles: I am eating vegan cheese and singing Bushes of Love, but since there are so many phrases involved they can't all be right next to the subject/verb.

While it is technically true that there is no grammatical requirement as to the order of these phrases, it is not okay to string so many of them together without commas.

An excellent resource for these types of usage rules is the Purdue OWL. The relevant entry is here: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/01 and here are some excerpts:

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer back to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion.

11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

  • I agree the sentence is ambiguous, but I disagree that it is "not completely grammatically correct." These are two unrelated things. It seems you're saying this because the sentence lacks commas, but commas are classified as punctuation rather than grammar. Some grammatical structures require the use of commas, but "usage" or style rules related to commas are another thing entirely, and breaking one of the Purdue OWL's "quick rules" for commas doesn't make a sentence grammatically incorrect. That page says "in certain rhetorical contexts and for specific purposes, these rules may be broken." – sumelic Aug 16 '16 at 18:24
  • That's fair; I suppose I worded that poorly. I meant to say that the sentence is not completely correct, rather than 'grammatically'. I was considering more than just its grammar when making that assessment. I've changed my wording to reflect that. – Jaawn Aug 16 '16 at 18:40
  • 1
    This is what I first thought of as well. I think the sentence could mean either, but in order to force it into a single meaning, a comma is the best option. Even just "I'm at home eating vegan cheese, in my underpants and singing Bushes of Love" I think would be sufficient. – David Starkey Aug 16 '16 at 19:03
  • 2
    OP didn't say whether he was discussing a written or spoken sentence. I think the vast majority of English usage is spoken rather than written, and therefore has no commas. – bdsl Aug 16 '16 at 22:52
  • 1
    Correct, spoken English has no commas. Information conveyed with commas in writing is often conveyed with prosody in speech. – bdsl Aug 26 '16 at 20:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.