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I just this web page and found towards the bottom a claim about ambiguous sentences, which doesn't seem right to me.

According to the website:

"Sitting by the fence, the dog growled at the cat" is an example of when zeugma goes wrong. [...] Due to the placement of the word "sitting," it is unclear as to whether the dog, the cat or both of the animals are sitting near the fence.

Another example of such a construction is as follows: "Walking by the tree, the child waved to her friend." Again, who is walking by the tree? One child or both of the children?

So as far as I'm concerned, I think in this case, "the dog" would do the "sitting" and "the child" would do the "walking" (according to what I was taught in school. When the subject "dog" did both the action "sit" and "growl", you can cut it down and make it a Gerund-thing =)) sorry I'm not a native speaker)

Is the website right that these phrases are ambiguous?

  • Whether the web I put in the bottom is right? (I mean is it true that we don't know who did the action in the examples above?) – Kasperaus Jan 24 '18 at 16:49
  • Ok, I've edited your question to make it clearer. If I've misunderstood what you were asking, please feel free to make further edits (or possibly to even undo my edits... though I think at least that I've made it clearer what has come from the website and what was your own wording). – AndyT Jan 24 '18 at 17:00
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    I don't think much of those "When Zeugma Goes Wrong" examples. To my mind they've got nothing to do with zeugmas, which invariably involve inappropriately attempting to extend the "scope" of a single word in a way that involves two or more incompatible senses of the word. Nor do I see any "dangling participles" in the two examples given - in both cases the default target of the initial -ing clause is the first credible noun that follows (the dog, the child), and it would be a perverse / misguided interpretation to extend that scope to the cat or her friend. – FumbleFingers Jan 24 '18 at 17:09
  • @FumbleFingers - I was tempted to edit out the "zeugma" reference as I don't really think it's appropriate. I copied the "dangling modifier" from the website, without any knowledge of what one is. I've now edited further to remove reference to these phrases. – AndyT Jan 24 '18 at 17:14
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These examples don't seem very ambiguous (as others have said). Here is a good description of dangling participles, with some genuinely ambiguous/misleading examples:

Flying south for the winter, I saw a huge flock of swallows.

And, Wikipedia has a good description of the various types of zeugma, with some good examples:

"They covered themselves with dust and glory." (Mark Twain)

"When he asked 'What in heaven?' she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door." (Flanders and Swann, "Have Some Madeira M'Dear")

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It is slightly ambiguous, but you are correct, that because the action comes at the beginning, it would be understood to refer to the first named noun (dog or child). If it was at the end, it would refer to the second (cat or friend). So...

The dog growled at the cat sitting by the fence.

Refers to the cat sitting by the fence.

Sitting by the fence, the dog growled at the cat.

Refers to the dog sitting by the fence.

As you point out, a less ambiguous sentence would be

The dog sitting by the fence, growled at the cat.

Hope that helps!

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    That should be "The dog[,] sitting by the fence[,] growled at the cat. If you elide one comma then elide them both. – AmI Jan 24 '18 at 22:57
  • I don't see the ambiguity in the examples quoted by the OP. – Lawrence May 25 '18 at 11:37
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It is definitely the subject of the main sentence doing the action in the introductory gerund phrase. Note the action of the gerund continues through all actions by the subject in a complex sentence. Changing the gerund to a simple verb can have a different meaning: that is was the first of a sequence of actions.

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    They're not gerunds but garden variety participles. – KarlG Jan 24 '18 at 17:23

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