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What is the exact difference between "A flea bit Dog on his ear" and "A flea bit the ear of Dog"? Every time I saw the sentence "A flea bit Dog on his ear," I have often thought it as "Dog is on his ear and a flea bit Dog". Is this wrong?

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    This is a common problem with the placement of prepositional phrases in English. Since a prepositional phrase can modify almost any word in the sentence, the sentence can be syntactically ambiguous, leading to this famous exchange. The ambiguity must be resolved semantically: dogs don't rest on their ears, elephants don't wear pajamas. – Malvolio Apr 22 '17 at 12:38
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    The original post's examples use "Dog" as a proper noun. (A proper noun is a name, like "Malvolio" or "Jasper".) Since "Dog" is a name, the examples do not say what kind of creature Dog is. Dog might be a dog (Canis familiaris) or a human (Homo sapiens) or even a cat (Felis catus). – Jasper Apr 22 '17 at 15:07
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In term of actual meaning, there is no difference. It's Dog's ear, and a flea bit it. The first sentence is a little more fluent and less formal. If you really wanted to try really hard to interpret them differently, I suppose "bit the ear of Dog" could mean that the ear isn't attached to Dog - it's one that belongs to him but isn't attached to his body, or that was attached to his body but is now severed. But this is extremely unlikely.

Yes, your interpretation of "A flea bit Dog on his ear" is wrong. on his ear doesn't modify Dog, but the way in which the flea bit Dog. To phrase it the way you're thinking of, it would have to be something like "A flea bit Dog, who was on his ear."

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    @user22046 Don't forget to adjust the verb for the 3rd-person singular: A bird sits on the tree branch, A bird sits on the branch of the tree, &c. You also can't "sit a tree". – lly Apr 22 '17 at 14:03
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    sits is not a transitive verb, @user22046. The verb's transitivity or intransitivity is central to the question you're asking. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 22 '17 at 14:34
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    A bird bit the branch. Why not branch on the tree? Because branches usually are part of a tree. Therefore, a bird bit the branch lying on the ground. Otherwise, just bit the branch. – Lambie Apr 22 '17 at 14:47
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    @lly You also can't "sit a tree". - unless you were W.S.Gilbert, who rhymed "strategy" with "sat a gee" (gee = horse). See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major-General%27s_Song – alephzero Apr 22 '17 at 15:34
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    @alephzero Eh, good catch but that's just a poetic extension of the same old use of a for on that you see in afoot. It still doesn't work for trees, which you sit in rather than atop, even if one were being archaic and poetic. – lly Apr 22 '17 at 21:45
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Where on the dog did the flea bite?
--The flea bit the dog on its ear.

What part of the dog's body did the flea bite?
--The flea bit the ear of the dog.

The semantic difference is the difference between where on the dog and what body part of the dog, location versus discrete body part.

The grammatical difference:

In "The flea bit the dog on its ear", the dog is the direct object of the transitive verb, and on its ear is a complement specifying location.

In "The flea bit the ear of the dog", the ear is the direct object of the transitive verb, and of the dog is a complement specifying ownership or membership, the entity to which the ear belongs, or the collection of body parts of which the ear is a member.

P.S. Since you've asked about placement of the complement...

The placement of the prepositional phrase complement will depend on the transitivity of the verb.

The flea sat on the ear of the dog (or ... sat on the dog's ear) intransitive

The flea bit the dog on the ear. transitive

The flea bit the ear of the dog. transitive

  • If someone told me "Where on the dog did the flea bite?" If I answer the question, I maybe come to the answer like this, Not "The flea bit the dog on its ear" But "The flea bit on its ear on the dog." Am I misunderstanding? If we answer like this, "The flea bit on its ear on the dog." Is it wrong? – user22046 Apr 22 '17 at 12:16
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    The complement on its ear would come after the direct object: The flea bit the dog on its ear. It is ungrammatical to say "The flea bit on its ear the dog". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 22 '17 at 12:48

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