I remember reading about word order importance but when I Googled this, it's too broad. A sentence for a better example of what I'm trying to convey (but it might be too simple):

"To share the history of the legendary John Doe in North America."

  • John Doe isn't in North America
  • The purpose is "to share the history in North America" of John Doe.

I hope it implies what I'm trying to find because I cannot think of another example. I don't mean the Subject + Verb + Object examples like this:

"The chicken crossed the road” and “The road crossed the chicken", but when in my first example, either or makes sense and could be true, yet clarity is key. Sorry about this question if it's stupid.

  • After much searching, I broke down my sentence into parts and then searched "word order prepositional phrase." I think this may be what I'm looking for (correct me if I'm incorrect): "Rearranging Prepositional Phrases - Not all phrases are this flexible, and so we need to be careful not to confuse our readers by misplacing a prepositional phrase: "'The Venusians swam for two hours after lunch in my pool.'"
    – BeerBeard
    Mar 18 '18 at 20:45
  • Use throughout instead of in. Better yet, stick throughout North America after share.
    – KarlG
    Mar 18 '18 at 20:59
  • AFAIK John Doe is not legendary, but is used to represent a typical citizen. Mar 18 '18 at 21:02
  • It's a well-known ambiguity. 'I saw a man with a pair of binoculars' is perhaps the classic example. Is 'with a pair of binoculars' an adverbial showing instrument, or a postmodifier of 'man'. Without context, it's impossible to tell. The Gricean maxim of manner would demand rephrasing. Mar 19 '18 at 0:01
  • Thanks @KarlG. I purposefully left out 'throughout' in order to get the answer I was seeking. Thank you so much for letting me know it is the term misplaced modifier and sharing the Groucho Marx example.
    – BeerBeard
    Mar 22 '18 at 22:16

A particularly apt name for what you describe would be Groucho's elephant:

One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know. — Groucho Marx, Animal Crackers (1930)

The joke, of course, is only possible because the grammar of English allows — and in most cases, encourages — parsing a final prepositional phrase so that it modifies the first available word that preceeds it.

In your case, the most logical reading is that in North America modifies John Doe, not the verb share. Since you supplied the information that the legendary Mr. Doe is in fact not in North America, then we can term it a less amusing but apt misplaced modifier. Without that information, however, your sentence is unambiguous about Mr. Doe's location.

An ambiguous modifier is one where a reader is unable to parse a sentence in a single way:

Eating out often makes me happy.

Either frequent dining out make me happy or eating out makes me happy often but not every single time; it depends whether I read often as modifying eating or make.


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