The following multiple-choice question was asked in an exam:

Which one is the internal storage device that performs better than its predecessor with spinning disks inside?

  • HDD
  • SSD
  • USB flash drive
  • RAM

I wonder if the question is ambiguous in regards to what with spinning disks inside modifies in it.

Edit: As Prof. Shor had assumed, my main concern here really is whether with spinning disks inside can be thought of as a modifier to what is being asked, and not to the predecessor; ultimately making HDD the answer.

  • Please clarify. I assume you're asking what with spinning disks inside modifies. – Peter Shor Apr 22 at 16:11
  • Yes, your assumption is correct, and I am mainly interested in that. However, I would also be interested if there exists just about any other ambiguities there is. I will edit the question in accordance with my main interest, regardless. – ThoAppelsin Apr 22 at 16:13
  • I'm sure they want you to pick SSD, but there's nothing technically incorrect about RAM, which is the fastest type of storage. (There also is nonvolatile RAM—such as ferroelectric RAM or the latest magnetoresistive RAM, even though the umbrella acronym for it is NVRAM or NVM.) Even from a technical perspective, it's a poorly worded question. – Jason Bassford Apr 22 at 16:43
  • As for the actual question, I might rephrase it as than its predecessor which had spinning disks inside. (Even though the technology still exists.) Or possibly (if you don't like that tense) than its spinning-disk-based predecessor. – Jason Bassford Apr 22 at 16:47
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    I wouldn't say it's ambiguous. You do need to have a bit of techy knowledge to be sure but that seems to be what they're testing anyway, so it's fair enough. The question can't be asking for a device with a spinning disk because that could only be the HDD, and none of the other devices are predecessors of the HDD that have inferior performance - so you are looking for an internal device that was developed after the HDD, can be used as a replacement for a HDD, and performs better - that can only be the SSD. – Minty Apr 22 at 17:20

Grammatically it seems to be ambiguous. "with spinning disks inside" could modify "internal storage device", "performs better", or "predecessor".

However, to someone at all familiar with the devices (the presumed audience for the question), the first two interpretations make little sense. Only one of the listed devices has spinning disks inside, but those interpretations seem to assume that they all do. And if a device can't have spinning disks inside, it's not reasonable to ask if it performs better with spinning disks inside.

The last interpretation does make sense. All the devices have predecessors, and some of those predecessors have spinning disks inside. It's reasonable then to ask which one performs better.

So by process of elimination, only the last interpretation is likely. Also, it's generally common to resolve this ambiguity by choosing the closest preceding phrase for which the prepositional phrase is applicable.

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