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I just heard a radio news report on a murder: "The victim was found by a passer-by with stab wounds".

Surely this should read: "The victim, with stab wounds, was found by a passer-by"?

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    Why do you say "surely"? What rule of grammar do you think the original sentence breaks? A sentence can be ambiguous without being ungrammatical – herisson Aug 4 '17 at 18:08
  • This is actually a type of humour, although the news reporter probably didn't mean it to be. 'The victim was found by a passer-by with stab wounds' could mean either the victim had stab wounds (which was probably the case) or the passer-by had stab wounds. The answers at the moment clear up this ambiguity. – marcellothearcane Aug 4 '17 at 18:12
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    Such ambiguities are normal and common. You probably don't notice 99% of them, because your brain automatically chooses the correct interpretation based on the context and blocks the incorrect one. – michael.hor257k Aug 4 '17 at 18:14
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    The grammar is impeccable. – Hot Licks Aug 4 '17 at 21:54
  • Ambiguity can create confusion and misunderstanding, which is the primary cause of most strife in the world, therefore one should make at least a slight effort not to be ambiguous. Context is generally enough to help you identify the correct meaning, as in this case ASSUMING you have the correct context. The problem is, we all think everyone else has the same context we do, and every single one of us is completely wrong about that. – barbecue Aug 4 '17 at 22:13
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The context makes it clear who had stab wounds. I don't see anything wrong with the headline, or with your alternative. Both are ok.

Alternatively, it could say:

Passer-by finds victim with stab wounds.

  • I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say the context makes it clear. There's enough here to make an educated guess as to what was probably meant. Just because it's grammatical doesn't mean it's unambiguous. – Adrian McCarthy Aug 4 '17 at 22:27
  • Or to reverse the context: Detectives find perpetrator with staghounds. – Cireo Aug 5 '17 at 0:09
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The headline is ambiguous, but not as has been described so far. The passer-by could have stab wounds (restrictive prepositional phrase), or the finding could have been done with stab wounds (adverbial prepositional phrase). The intended meaning (that the victim had stab wounds) is NOT being stated. It is only our assumptions that lead us to that conclusion. How would you parse this headline: "Dog bites man with rabies"?

  • Why is your example relevant? "Bites" and "was found" are different verbs – herisson Aug 4 '17 at 22:01
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    "He was found with stab wounds" is a valid sentence, and does NOT mean that the finding was "done with stab wounds". Adverbial prepositional phrases can have various meanings; they aren't only used to describe the way a thing is done. – herisson Aug 5 '17 at 1:31
  • I see your point. It is because the passive form contains a copular auxiliary verb that that verb can be borrowed and reused to coordinate the PP, so there are two predicates: "he was found" and "he was with stab wounds". It would be better to use a comma to force the final PP to be adverbial (although it is really co-verbial). – AmI Aug 9 '17 at 22:47
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Lately, I've started to eschew putting adjectives at the end of sentences like this, precisely because of you ambiguity you mention in this example. In this particular case, I agree with the other poster that the description of one person as "the victim" implies that he/she is the one with the stab wounds in this case, but there are many other cases where the nouns do not remove the ambiguity.

I think your suggestion of "The victim, with stab wounds, was found by a passer-by" is an improvement, but the positioning of your adjectival phrase makes it sound like you're clarifying which victim (eg. "The victim with stab wounds was found by a passer-by, while the victim with head trauma was found by a rescue dog" - now, I removed some commas in my example, which changes the meaning more toward the point I'm trying to make, but you get the idea).

Actually, I feel it's best re-worded at "The victim was found, with stab wounds, by a passer-by". Here, we're clarifying something about how they were found... suggesting that this was a condition specific to that moment.

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    Thank you for that last suggestion: it is clear and unambiguous. – Braybuddy Aug 5 '17 at 13:59
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I would view the statement "The victim was found by a passer-by with stab wounds" as an error, assuming, of course, that it's the victim that has the stab wounds. "With stab wounds" refers to the passer-by; we know that's illogical, so we know what the writer is trying to say. But what he's trying to say isn't what he said.

The New Yorker made fun a few years ago of a statement about "A table purchased by a lady with Heppelwhite legs." We may know what is meant, but to attach the prepositional phrase to "a lady" is simply an error.

@Ami's sentence "Dog bites man with rabies" clearly implies that the man has rabies.

"The car was parked by a woman with the motor running." Surely that's an error.

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    Why are you sure that it is an error? An ambiguous sentence can be grammatical. – herisson Aug 5 '17 at 0:42
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    OK, why do you think it cannot parse as "The victim was found [by a passerby] [with stab wounds]"? Do you think "The victim was found with stab wounds" is grammatical? – herisson Aug 5 '17 at 0:58
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    My understanding is this. In the sentence you gave in the last comment, the prepositional phrase "with a white cane" could not modify the noun phrase "the man", but it could modify the entire verb phrase "was addressed by a senator". The only reason why this doesn't come to mind as a likely interpretation is because we don't commonly talk about people being "addressed with" things. But we do commonly talk about people being "found with" things. – herisson Aug 5 '17 at 1:22
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    See also the various examples in this question & answers: Does “I am eating vegan cheese in my underpants” really imply that the vegan cheese is inside my underpants?, including one from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, "In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms" (meaning "petitioned in the most humble terms for redress", not "petioned for redress that is in the most humble terms"). – herisson Aug 5 '17 at 1:23
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    Here's another similar example: "[the Christ] was seen by them upon the earth in a simple vision" books.google.com/… – herisson Aug 5 '17 at 1:28

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