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The mother took a few steps toward the family room, grabbing a long umbrella on her way. She was sure that if necessary, she could do some harm to an intruder with the pointy object.

I copied this script from a short story of a mother hearing some rumbling and talking at night and then decided to investigate. About my question, doesn't the position of the modifier "with the pointy object" create some ambiguity? Like someone might mistakenly understand (although the article "the" refers back to the umbrella) that there was an intruder grabbing the pointy object instead of the mother. If so, how can we fix it?

The mother took a few steps toward the family room, grabbing a long umbrella on her way. She was sure that if necessary, she could do some harm with the pointy object to an intruder. (if it needs to be fixed, this is my modest endeavor)

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Context, context, context.

The mother took a few steps toward the family room, grabbing a long umbrella on her way. She was sure that if necessary, she could do some harm to an intruder with the pointy object.

As this stands, in the context it provides and the further context you provide, there is no ambiguity.

  • the pointy object must refer to some currently or previously identified object. The only one available for that reference is the umbrella.

  • The preposition phrase with the pointy object may act to designate either a) current possession or accompaniment of the object by some nominal which the PP modifies or b) employment of the object as an instrument in the performance of some action designated by a verb phrase which the PP modifies

    • in case a), we know that the mother is in current possession of the object: there is no justification in context for re-assigning current possession of the object to an intruder.

    • in case b), the actions took a few steps and grabbing a long umbrella occurred before the mother came into possession of the object. The only action available for the PP to modify is do some harm to an intruder—and that is, in fact, what the PP modifies.

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Modifiers like this can create ambiguity, but in this particular excerpt there's enough context that it's clear what the pointy object is referencing.

Firstly, earlier in the sentence it mentions that the mother grabbed a long umbrella. Pointiness is an adjective that would be used to describe a umbrella.

Secondly, it mentions that she could do some harm to an intruder. Given that earlier in the sentence it was mentioned she picked up an umbrella, it's logical to assume that the pointy object being referred to is the umbrella.

Thirdly, it mentions an intruder. Given an was used rather than the, it suggests that the potential intruder is unknown to us and thus it strengthens the likelihood the modifier is referencing the umbrella.

Together, all these factors make it pretty clear that the umbrella is the pointy object.

Your reordering of the sentence works perfectly well to remove this ambiguity, but it sounds a bit clunky and the way it's been written seems best to me. In a more general sense the way you've reordered the sentence would be how you'd do it.

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