Residents asked for comments on Lydney Area Action Plan Baseline Report.

Last summer the Treasury Department asked for comments on fixes to—or outright elimination of–the use-it-or-lose-it rule in light of the new $2,500 cap.

In the above examples from news reports, how can one say if "asked" means "who were asked" or not? Is there a rule of thumb to figure out this problem? What is the grammar under such a construction?

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    I think this is a truly excellent question, and I'm quite surprised it's not come up on ELU before (so far as I know). It's a shame you couldn't think of truly ambiguous "sentences", but I must admit it took me a minute or two to think of one myself, so don't think the less of yourself for that! Feb 4, 2013 at 19:44
  • Thank you @Fumble, your comment is more than 100 upvotes.
    – user114
    Feb 4, 2013 at 19:56
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    I don't understand this question. Both of those sentences seem to use asked the same way. Feb 4, 2013 at 20:00
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    WAIT.....i think i get it. someone come vote me down if im wrong. Feb 4, 2013 at 20:00
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    @Aerovistae: I haven't downvoted anything on this page, and I don't have enough rep points to see if any answer's non-negative net score includes downvotes. But the basic principle is "downvote an answer if you think it's incorrect", or totally fails to address the question. I'm sure sometimes people downvote an answer for other reasons, but they really shouldn't do this. I wouldn't say your answer is truly "wrong", but it doesn't really target the specific ambiguity OP is trying to ask about. Feb 4, 2013 at 22:44

4 Answers 4


Good question. The short answer is there's no way of knowing except by context.

If we treat both of OP's examples as "valid sentences", the grammatical context clearly establishes that asked should be a past tense verb (since no other word could feasibly be acting as a verb). So in neither case is it really credible to interpret asked as an "adjectival* past participle (it's definitely the residents and the Department who asked for comments). But consider...

Let's not forget those tenants asked to move out.

...where no grammatical principle says whether we're talking about tenants who were asked to move out (by the landlord?), or who asked if they could move out. You can't choose either interpretation except through context (what the speaker said before or after it, or the general context within which he said it).

The same would apply with, for example, requested, and doubtless many other words. Of course, it's easy to remove the ambiguity by placing who or who were between tenants and asked.

Thanks to Aerovistae for proposing forget that those tenants, leading to a third valid interpretation of the original. One in which we're being reminded of the fact of the tenants asking for relocation rather than being urged to think about the tenants themselves (those who either initiated, or were subject to, the request to leave).

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    That is ambiguous, but I have to ask because I'm not sure, is that grammatically correct, strictly speaking? Generally, there would be an extra word in there to make it clear: Let's not forget that those tenants asked to move out. Let's not forget those tenants who asked to move out. Feb 4, 2013 at 20:22
  • @Aerovistae: It's ambiguous, but it certainly doesn't break any rules of grammar. But I will amend the answer to indicate the third possible meaning disambiguated by your "that". Feb 4, 2013 at 22:17

If I understand your question correctly, the difference between the two examples is that the first isn't actually a complete sentence. The correct way to write it would be:

Residents were asked for comments on the Lydney Area Action Plan Baseline Report.

It sounds like a sentence that was cut down for brevity's sake, similar to the casual way you might speak in online chat or when in a hurry (or sometimes in news bulletins or newspaper headlines/captions, which is what your example sounds like). Something similar to Sorry, was at dentist instead of Sorry, I was at the dentist.

So now that we can see the full sentence in the first example, inclusive of the missing and implied "were" and "the", the difference between your first and second examples becomes clear. The difference is that in example 1, the residents were asked, whereas in example two, the Treasury department asked. The residents were asked by someone else; the Treasury department did the asking to someone else. The were is what makes the difference.


The first example looks like a headline. In "news-speak", headlines usually omit as many words as possible, while getting the basic message across. In the text of the piece, I would expect this to include the full verb form:

Residents were asked for comments on the Lydney Area Action Plan Baseline Report.

However, as pointed out by FumbleFingers in a comment and another answer, it would also be possible, with more context, for this to describe a situation in which this is a full, grammatical sentence with asked expressing past tense, for example:

When the commissioner opened the floor for discussion, residents asked for comments ...

Nonetheless, in the absence of the preceding Lydney, I'm still inclined to the "headline" interpretation here.

The second example looks like it comes from the text of a news article, and is complete, without question using the past tense.

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    I can see how you'd tend to interpret #1 as simply the "cut-down grammar" of a newspaper headline, but assuming a meeting where the landlord's representative has just read out something entitled Lydney Area Action Plan Baseline Report, it would be quite possible for OP's sentence to occur as a grammatically valid sentence in a description of how the residents reacted. Feb 4, 2013 at 19:49

I may have misunderstood the question, in which case downvote me and tell me so.

As I understand it, you're asking how to tell the difference between these:

Residents asked for opinions on their neighborhood.

Residents asked for opinions on their neighborhood had little to say.

So, you're asking how to tell if the resident is doing the asking, or is being asked.

I could be wrong, but I don't think it's possible for this to be ambiguous. I cannot think of any examples.

You can tell the difference by looking for a second verb.

If the residents are asking questions, the residents will have only one verb attached to them:

Residents asked what the police were doing.

^In that example the second verb were doing belongs to the police, not the residents. If you understand the usage of what in this sentence, it's not possible to confuse this with the second structure.

Now, if that had been the second structure, where someone is asking the residents, the previous example would be grammatically incorrect, and not a sentence. Let's look at it again.

Residents asked what the police were doing.

You see, if the residents were being asked, this would mean nothing. It would serve as a subject clause for a longer sentence, but would mean nothing by itself because it has no other verb. Which residents? The residents who were asked questions. What did they do? I don't know, the "sentence" didn't say.

Remember that a sentence must have both a subject and a verb! If "the residents who were asked questions" are the subjects, what is the verb? Answer: there is none, because this isn't a sentence if the residents are the ones being asked!

Right: Residents asked what the police were doing said they didn't know.
Wrong: Residents asked what the police were doing.... and what? Nothing! This is a fragment, so it cannot be the second structure. In this sentence, the residents must be the ones doing the asking.

There is the final possibility, as WendiKidd points out, that the sentence merely seeks to declare that the residents were asked questions. In that case, you cannot just say asked, you must say were asked.

The residents were asked questions.

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