For example, the sentence

"I bought a book which was the best seller last month"

can be interpreted differently.

  1. The book was the best seller of last month, and I bought it.
  2. I bought the book in the last month, and it was the best seller.

I am not a native speaker, I have no idea about how native English users interpret the meaning of this sentence in their first thought. Are ambiguities like this usual among native speakers? What if they appear in formal writing?

  • So, you’re asking about which part of the sentence “last month” applies to – when you bought the book, or when it was a best seller (or perhaps even both). Usually, we go by proximity (in this case, when the book was a best seller), but such assumptions can lead the reader astray.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 3:12

1 Answer 1


As in presumably any natural language, it is possible to be ambiguous in English. When it happens in speech, one of three things happens: (1) the listener figures out what was meant through context, etc, (2) the listener misunderstands, or (3) the listener asks for clarification if the exact meaning is important to the listener.

Ambiguity in formal written English may be purposeful or inadvertent. One purpose of rewriting is to catch and correct inadvertent ambiguities. One reason to avoid wordy sentences is that ambiguities seem to thrive in such sentences. Let's take your original sentence.

"Last month, I bought a best seller" is briefer than your original and now clearly refers to when I purchased rather than to when the book was selling briskly.

"I bought last month's best seller" is again brief and now clearly refers to when the book was selling briskly rather than to when I purchased.

What if I wanted to indicate both ideas?

"Last month I bought what was the month's best seller."

All three sentences contain fewer words than your original sentence and express a completely unambiguous thought. In my experience, writing concisely helps avoid ambiguity.

EDIT: I agree with the comment that the meaning of your original sentence ought to refer to when the book was a best seller and that most listeners or readers will construe it that way. Unfortunately, the speaker or writer may not have intended it that way. Misunderstandings happen.

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