2

I have this sentence:

John inadvertently broke the window of Mary's car, which was bought just two weeks ago.

Which meaning should I understand between "Mary's car was bought two weeks ago" and "the window of Mary's car was bought two weeks ago"?

If the sentence means the former one, how can I make it mean "the window was bought two weeks ago"?

Thanks.

  • In, say, a legal document, where it might be essential to remove the ambiguity, you could always write John inadvertently broke the window of Mary's car, which window was bought just two weeks ago. But even the most pedantic lawyer probably wouldn't think it necessary to include car instead of highlighted window there if the "natural" default reading (apply the clause to the first credible preceding referent, working backwards) was intended anyway. – FumbleFingers Oct 14 '18 at 16:11
3

A relative clause, in normal circumstances goes directly after the noun phrase that it is modifying. If that noun phrase has a smaller noun phrase inside it at the end, then there is no grammatical way to distinguish which noun phrase it is modifying:

  • ... [ the window of [ Mary's car] ], which was bought just two weeks ago

In the example above we see that there are two candidate noun phrases. Firstly there is the large one the window of Mary's car and then there is the smaller one nested inside it Mar's car. The relative clause which was bought just two weeks ago could be modifying either one. It is not possible for the reader to tell.

There is no getting round this rule, so the best strategy to disambiguate the sentence, if you don't want to change the general structure, is to change the verb. If the Original Poster used the verb replace instead of bought here, the reader would be inclined to read the relative clause as applying to the window instead of the car (just because bits of cars are more often replaced than cars themselves):

  • John inadvertently broke the window of Mary's car, which had been replaced just two weeks ago.

Although this sentence does not state that Mary had to buy the window, it would be tacitly assumed by most readers that the replacement involved some kind of cost.

  • 1
    But it could also have been the car itself that was replaced. Changing the verb doesn't change the ambiguity between the two nouns. – Jason Bassford Oct 14 '18 at 17:04
  • @JasonBassford It's entirely possible, but the reader is less likely to interpret it that way, as mentioned in the post. – Araucaria Oct 14 '18 at 17:06
  • 1
    Stacked noun phrases are occasions of ambiguity. You can achieve unambiguity by using simple sentences and not trying to complicate them with relative clauses and similar appurtenances. – John Lawler Oct 15 '18 at 13:30
  • @JohnLawler Quite true. – Araucaria Oct 15 '18 at 15:28
1

To remove all ambiguity, you can replace the pronoun and with the correct noun.

For example:

John inadvertently broke the window of Mary's car, a window she had bought just two weeks ago.


There are other ways of doing it, but it would involve something more awkward, less succinct, or less precise:

John inadvertently broke the window (bought just two weeks ago) of Mary's car.
Mary bought a new car window two weeks ago, and John inadvertently broke it.
John inadvertently broke the newly bought window of Mary's car.

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.