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Give your first, immediate interpretation of...

There is a soldier on the hill whom he sees with binoculars.

What springs to mind?

Are these to be rephrased in the same way? Is the punctuation acceptable in each of them? Do the parenthetical phrases, specially in sentence 4, obfuscate or clarify the meaning?

  1. There is a soldier on the hill whom he sees with binoculars.
  2. There is a soldier on the hill whom he sees, with binoculars.
  3. There is a soldier on the hill, whom he sees with binoculars.
  4. There is a soldier on the hill, whom he sees, with binoculars.
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  • 1
    Are you trying to clarify who has the binoculars? Commented Feb 17 at 16:25
  • @WeatherVane Obviously
    – sanya6
    Commented Feb 17 at 16:34
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? What is this an example of: "FOR SALE: Car by elderly lady with new body and spare tire" Robusto mentions 'syntactic ambiguity. ... ambiguity between alternate syntactic structures underlying a sentence. and gives the example 'The man saw the boy with the binoculars.' Here, 1, 2 & 4 are ambiguous, Commented Feb 17 at 16:39
  • 1
    It doesn't need any punctuation, which makes it clunky. Clearly the soldier on the hill has been seen with the aid of binoculars. Otherwise the sentence would be "There is a soldier with binoculars on the hill whom he sees." Commented Feb 17 at 16:39
  • Obvious to whom? Or to who. Commented Feb 17 at 18:06

1 Answer 1

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The nub of this question is the problem of deciding who has the binoculars. (We'll assume there's only one pair.)

  • 3 There is a soldier on the hill, whom he sees with binoculars.

is the only variant that properly disambiguates: 'with binoculars' is constrained to be the instrumental prepositional phrase attaching to 'sees'. The viewer ('he'), using binoculars, sees the soldier.

The other three variants do not disambiguate: either the soldier is carrying binoculars, or the viewer sees him using binoculars. Even with the commas, different stress patterns are possible in speech, which is more powerful at disambiguating.                                          For instance:

  • 4a There is a soldier on the hill, whom he sees, with binoculars.

If the independent clause is heavily stressed and the other comma-offset strings destressed, the default reading is that 'with binoculars' belongs with 'whom he sees'.                  BUT

  • 4b There is a soldier on the hill, whom he sees, with binoculars.

If the independent clause and the final prepositional phrase are both heavily stressed and the relative clause destressed, the default reading is that 'with binoculars' belongs with '[the] soldier on the hill'. But the same punctuation is used. As others have said, the way to safely disambiguate to force the apparently unavailable sense in writing is to re-order:

  • 5 There is a soldier with binoculars on the hill, whom he sees.
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  • That's a perfect answer. Can you recommend books or other resources to study prosody?
    – sanya6
    Commented Feb 18 at 16:59
  • I think the sad answer is that only years of taking part in / hearing conversation with / from proficient speakers avails here. Commented Feb 18 at 17:08

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