Betty learned that Albert telephoned after Isaiah visited.

Can anybody explain whether "after Isaiah visited" tell us: (1) when Betty learned something about Albert or (2) when Albert telephoned?

Could a large pause between "Albert" and "telephoned" or after "telephoned" disambiguate the sentence in sense (1) or (2) respectively?

(1) Betty learned that Albert [... large pause ...] telephoned after Isaiah visited.

(2) Betty learned that Albert telephoned [... large pause ...] after Isaiah visited.

Also, what are the possible meanings or interpretations in written English? For example, could we conclude that:

(1) Betty learned that Albert telephoned after Isaiah visited. ["after Isaiah visited" attaches to "telephoned"]

(2) Betty learned that Albert telephoned, after Isaiah visited. ["after Isaiah visited" attaches to "learned"]

  • 3
    I replaced reflexes with “possible meanings or interpretations” and fixed misspelled respectively. Re downvotes, no idea. This question is a good bit better than your others. Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 19:08
  • @Torpour Off hand, I would say failed to show effort to research before posting.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 19:15
  • 2
    I personally upvoted because I think there is a useful, interesting question here, and you have apparently given some thought to it and asked a focused set of questions in a clear presention. I am not sure what kind of research could be done for this kind of question if you don't know what general terms to search for. Searching for "ambiguity" wouldn't be very helpful in figuring out how to resolve the ambiguities. Anyway, I wouldn't take a downvote here as harshly as I would on other SE sites. Things seem to work differently here.
    – Rachel
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 19:18
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    @Rachel The research criterion for voting is "showed effort". It is basic courtesy for the OP to explain what he already did to try to answer his own question, if for no other reason than to save effort on the part of anyone who is about to try to answer the question.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 19:23
  • @Rachel yes, the what have you tried? of EL&U. Commented Aug 27, 2012 at 19:26

2 Answers 2


Yes, the example is structurally (or syntactically) ambiguous. It could be parsed as (these are only partial):

(1) B [learned [that A telephoned after I visited]] (A telephoned afterwards)


(2) B [[learned that A telephoned] [after I visited]] (B learned afterwards)

The thing to notice is how soon after I visited branches off on its own. In (2), it separates at the second level of nesting that I have shown; in (1) it hasn't separated yet at the second level.

If you want to know more about this specific kind of structure, look up adjunct attachment. In fact, seaching for that turned up a paper Prosodic boundaries in adjunct attachment, which you might find especially interesting.

I think that prosody will not be of decisive help here because emphasizing or pausing could have other meanings, such as suggesting contrast, e.g., that something happened after rather than before. No pause anywhere helps disambiguate for me. In particular, I think that a pause between Albert and telephoned is mysterious and accomplishes nothing. Of course, that paper might have evidence to the contrary; I only glanced at the abstract.

In writing, I would move something to make the structure clearer.

After Isaiah visited, Betty learned that Albert telephoned.

This strongly suggests that after modifies learned.

Betty learned that, after Isaiah visited, Albert telephoned.

This strongly suggests that after modifies telephoned. I'm not confident that commas would help you enough because people are not consistent enough with their use, and they aren't I think helpful for this kind of thing even ideally.

If you want to know why moving helps, you can read about constituency tests here. I didn't see a good, focused intro to movement, but you can google more appropriately after you read about constituents. That is rather preliminary anyway.

And last but not least, I think that in most natural discourse, context actually serves to disambiguate the meanings. Context generally does a lot of work but often gets forgotten when one stops to think about something out of context.


The sentence can have both interpretations. In speech, the context and, as you suggest, the way it was delivered, would mitigate any ambiguity. In writing, the ambiguity remains, and careful writers would recast the sentence to show which meaning was intended.

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