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I have two questions, but first consider the following sentence:

Cutlery includes any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and especially eating food in Western culture.

Does adverb 'especially' refer to 'eating food' or to 'eating food in Western culture'? My intuitive reasoning would be that, if the writer intended to give the latter meaning, the sentence would have ended with 'eating food especially in Western culture'. What do you think the meaning is (or is likely to be)?

I tried to search for adverb placement rules but they never consider these complicated cases. If a rule exists at all, can you point me to some authoritative source explaining cases such as this one?

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  • I'd say that "especially" is a modifier in the PP "in preparing, serving, and especially eating food in Western culture". – BillJ Oct 8 '20 at 10:24
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Cutlery includes any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and especially eating food in Western culture. means

Cutlery includes any hand implement used in

  • (1) preparing,
  • (2) serving, and especially
  • (3) eating ...

food, in Western culture.

This is deducible because 'preparing' and 'serving' don't stand sensibly on their own (without a complement). Serving in the trenches? At Wimbledon? So 'food[,] in Western culture' must be the common complement, omitted after the first two ing-forms.

A re-ordering is

Cutlery includes any hand implement used, in Western culture, in preparing, serving, and especially eating food.

......................

But you are right to suspect that an ambiguity could occur in such a sentence.

John enjoys cooking, eating, and especially catching fish. or just

John enjoys cooking, eating, and catching fish.

(the adverb placement is not the source of the ambiguity) is indeterminate: does John enjoy cooking fish, or cooking per se? Ditto eating. The ambiguity exists because of the listing, and the fact that cook[ing] and eat[ing] can be used with or without objects [complements].

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    All written sentences are multiply ambiguous, because the rest of the language (phonology, intonation, rhythm, facial expression, eye contact, etc) is missing and that's what normally decides such ambiguities. And adverbs are a wastebasket category that can work in many many ways. – John Lawler Mar 7 at 18:18
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NB: Cutlery includes any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and especially [includes] eating food in Western culture.

especially qualifies "includes".

There are no rules in English - there is only guidance. Adverbs are quite flexible in their positioning but usually follow the verb. In any other position, they tend to give emphasis.

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Especially refers to eating. (Cutlery is used in preparing food and serving it as well). In Western culture modifies the whole sentence.

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