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Example sentences I came up with:

A) He told me that I had to do it despite not wanting to.

B) He told me that, despite not wanting to, I had to do it.

C) Despite not wanting to, he told me that I had to do it.

D) He told me that I had to do it, despite not wanting to.

While all the above sentences may have the same meaning, the implicit object of despite, in both C and D, could be understood as him instead of me. That is,

C) Despite him not wanting to, he told me that I had to do it.

D) He told me that I had to do it, despite him not wanting to.

However, in A and B, the implicit object could only be understood as me.

A) He told me that I had to do it despite him not wanting to. (?)

B) He told me that, despite him not wanting to, I had to do it. (?)

Sometimes, changing the order by putting despite in front of the that-clause doesn't make sense:

JS2 regretted that despite the high rate of suicide, there was no national plan for prevention.

Despite the high rate of suicide, JS2 regretted that there was no national plan for prevention. (?)

Sometimes, it means the same thing:

He stated that despite those positive developments, important challenges still remained around the country.

Despite those positive developments, he stated that important challenges still remained around the country.

I think this is because there's a difference between contrasting what's inside a that-clause and contrasting the clause itself.

If my understanding is correct, where could I read more about this from a reputable source? My grammar books don't cover this.

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  • Yes, ambiguities persist in English. 1B and 1C disambiguate the two senses there. You can also use the clarifying if highfalutin 'He told me that I had to do it, despite my not wanting to' or 'He told me that I had to do it, despite his not wanting to'. Commented Jan 22, 2022 at 19:31
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    The ambiguous ones are related to dangling modifiers.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 23:39
  • As @Barmar notes, there is an issue with misplaced modifiers and identifying their referents. However, I had trouble following your argument because you seem to use the word "object" when I think you mean "agent". Commented Jan 29, 2022 at 21:41
  • @MarcInManhattan I don't understand what you mean by "agent". I learnt that prepositions like despite and of take objects.
    – Nameless
    Commented Jan 30, 2022 at 1:04
  • The agent is basically the person or thing that performs the verb's action (not necessarily its subject). However, I think that I understand now: you're talking about the object of "despite" whereas I'm talking about the agent of "wanting". Usually I'd use a possessive pronoun there, e.g.: "Despite his/my not wanting to . . ." Commented Jan 30, 2022 at 9:52

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