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This is an excerpt from a piece of text talking about ambiguity:

Misuse of the word which, or its omission for brevity, both produce many classic examples of amphiboly. (“On the claim form I have filled in details about the injury to my spine which I now enclose.”)

There are innumerable versions of the advertisement:

FOR SALE: Car by elderly lady with new body and spare tyre.

How do the two examples the author gives here support his view about amphiboly?

In the first example, I can only figure out one meaning, and in the second one, I can’t even understand the grammatical or syntactic structure, much less its meaning.

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  • Both can be easily misinterpreted, if analyzed by a robot, even if the robot has a perfect understanding of English syntax and semantics. – Hot Licks Jan 20 '18 at 13:58
  • Well....does the car have a new body or does the lady have a new body? – Gary's Student Jan 20 '18 at 14:01
  • yes,i had guessed the key to understand the second example might be the car and the old lady,but i don't understand the use of'by' in it(car by elderly lady).since my mother tongue is mandarin,I feel it hard to express my confusion and tough to understand how those examples intricate two meanings. – Y anfanyu Jan 20 '18 at 14:26
  • If a car is being sold by someone, you can rephrase that as the car being for sale by someone. Since advertisements like these usually begin with “For sale”, “For hire”, “For lease” etc., followed by a colon, the agent in the sentence can become a little awkward to place. In this case, the elderly lady is somewhat awkwardly placed because of this, but it means “car for sale by old lady”, not “car by old lady” (which indeed doesn’t make sense on its own). In the first example, are you enclosing the claim form, the details, the injury, or your spine? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 20 '18 at 16:19
  • Oh,I get it.Thank you so much! Thank you!Your answer exactly made it clear to me. – Y anfanyu Jan 21 '18 at 2:28
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On the claim form I have filled in details about the injury to my spine which I now enclose.

The intended meaning is surely that the claim form is enclosed, but as written, the sentence says that the details or the injury or the spine is enclosed.

I don't think this is a good example of amphibole, though, since the intended meaning is not even one of the possible meanings. It's just a mistake. (I suspect an editing error: the writer probably originally had "on the claim form" near the end, between "spine" and "which", but then moved it without noticing the resulting problem.)

FOR SALE: Car by elderly lady with new body and spare tyre.

This can mean either that the car has a new body and a spare tire, or that the lady does. The former meaning is clearly intended, but the latter meaning arguably fits the syntax better: "by elderly lady" modifies "for sale", so additional modifiers after it shouldn't be able to attach to "car". But this sentence isn't in normal English — it's in a sort of telegraphic style where syntax is more flexible in some respects (note how there's no verb, there're no articles, etc.) — and it would be odd to insist on "FOR SALE BY ELDERLY LADY:", so here we are.

  • Thanks a lot!For the first example I initially doubt its grammar too,but I am not quite sure,for I think maybe it is usual in English.And thank you for your explicit analysis.Thank you! – Y anfanyu Jan 21 '18 at 2:35
  • @Yanfanyu: You're welcome! If you're fully satisfied with this answer, there's a green checkmark to the left of it that you can click to mark it as "accepted". (But, no pressure. Feel free to wait a bit and see what other answers might come in.) – ruakh Jan 21 '18 at 5:40

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