Given the sentence: "A mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk".

Is there a grammar rule that can help resolve the ambiguity of whether "drunk" refers to the mother or the daughter?

Update: The question isn't about how to rewrite the sentence. If you found the sentence already written and had no access to the author in order to sort out the ambiguity, what would be the most correct interpretation?

  • 1
    The rule would be: "Don't leave a pronoun with an ambiguous antecedent unresolved." A mother beats her daughter because the mother/the daughter was drunk. You have to have a noun instead of the second she.
    – KarlG
    Feb 28, 2018 at 19:13
  • ... ie refuse the sentence "A mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk" when someone tries to present you with it. Mar 1, 2018 at 0:11
  • 2
    Possible duplicate of Removing modifier error; the corresponding sentence would be 'John saw a huge man when he was on his way home.' Mar 1, 2018 at 0:16
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    No, there is no such grammar rule.
    – Greg Lee
    Mar 1, 2018 at 4:15
  • 1
    The answer to your question is - No. The sentence is inherently ambiguous and is badly written.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 1, 2018 at 4:39

3 Answers 3


Although many adjectives fall before the nouns they modify, [...], those used in sentences or clauses with linking verbs fall after the nouns they modify. Linking verbs describe a state of being rather than an action; the most common linking verb is to be, and others include sense verbs like appear, seem, look, smell, sound, and taste.

Cynthia is fatigued.

- grammarly blog

Yes, the 'position' of an adjective can be used to determine the noun it applies to, but no, it doesn't help resolve the ambiguity you point out. In your example, the position of "drunk" in relation to the linking verb "was" tells you that it applies to the (pro)noun "she", which happens to be ambiguous here.

For example, if you replaced "she" with "the dog", then it's "the dog" that is said to be drunk. The ambiguity about who the original quote calls drunk comes from not pinning "she" down - "she" could refer to either of the previously mentioned people, or even to someone else. The ambiguity is not due to the 'position' of the word "drunk".


A mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk.

To solve the ambiguity:

  • A drunk mother beat up her daughter.
  • A mother beat up her drunk daughter.

It hardly seems necessary to add the because clause, given the context that one or the other's drunkenness was obviously the cause of the action, since no other reason is given for it.

But if you must include the modifying clause:

  • Because a mother was drunk, she beat up her daughter.
  • Because the daughter was drunk, her mother beat her up.

According to the Google syntax analyzer, "because she was drunk" is an adverbial clause that refers to the verb "beats up", so would refer to why the mother beats up.

In the sentence: "A mother beats up her daughter who was drunk", the relative clause "who was drunk" refers to the daughter.

  • The information in this answer seems true, but somewhat irrelevant. "Because she was drunk" does explain why the mother beats up her daughter: that is what the word "because" is used for. But the question evidently is asking about the referent of the pronoun "she" that comes after "because". If the sentence had a relative clause after "her daughter", you are right that it would be unambiguous, but it doesn't, so it isn't.
    – herisson
    Mar 1, 2018 at 2:48
  • 1
    Another thought: In terms of the adverbial clause, the sentence could have been equivalently: "A mother, because she was drunk, beat up her daughter." However here because of its position, "she" more clearly refers to "mother". Given that possibility, putting the clause at the end as in the original, would make "she" refer to "her daughter". Mar 1, 2018 at 4:23

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