"A Mother beats up her daughter because she was drunk"

So, who was drunk?

  1. Mother, or
  2. Daughter?

Please tell me how to interpret the sentence. Also, If the mother was drunk how would I write a sentence implying daughter was drunk or vice versa?

closed as off-topic by user3169, Varun Nair, Michael Rybkin, Cardinal, Peter Feb 7 '18 at 20:52

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  • The sentence is ambiguous and you cannot tell who was drunk from the way it is written. English personal pronouns don't change to reflect things like that. – stangdon Jan 31 '18 at 19:39
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it cannot be answered using the context given. More context is required. – user3169 Jan 31 '18 at 19:45
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    I think that "It's ambiguous" is an answer rather than a close reason. – snailboat Feb 2 '18 at 5:23

This is an example of what we call an ambiguous antecedent. It means a case where it's impossible to tell what or who a pronoun refers to.

It's very easy to accidentally produce this kind of construction in English, and it's something that even native speakers need to be taught to avoid when learning composition in school.

Often the antecedent (what the pronoun refers to) can be determined from context, but grammar itself doesn't give any clues.

For example:

Q: Why is Bob in the hospital?

A: Bob and Dave got into a fight, and he beat him up pretty badly.

The answer (which would be perfectly common from native speakers) has two ambiguous atecedents, and only the context (knowning Bob is the one who's in the hospital) tells us who beat up whom.

  • Just to underscore how easily ambiguity can occur, I'd contend that it's still not 100% clear about what happened between Bob and Dave. (Conceivably, Bob could have won the fight, but still required medical treatment.) +1 for a great answer. – J.R. Feb 2 '18 at 18:43
  • @J.R., You're right that the whole event hasn't been fully described, but even if Bob won the fight, Dave must have beat Bob up as well, or Bob wouldn't be in the hospital. – The Photon Feb 2 '18 at 19:36
  • Except.... I know of people who have broken hands or fingers by punching things – including other people. That's kind of what I was driving at. One can win a lopsided fight and still need a visit to the clinic. – J.R. Feb 2 '18 at 21:45

It sounds as if the daughter is drunk and that’s why the beating occurs. Otherwise if someone says: “A (or The) drunk mother beats up her daughter.” makes it more clear. Also, “A (The) mother beats up her drunk daughter”. You see? No “because” explanations, or second clauses are needed. The word drunk accompanying the subject makes an implication as to why the action occur. “A drunk mother beats...” vs the “ drunk dughter” gets beaten.

  • But either "The drunk mother beats up her daughter" or "The mother beats up her drunk daughter" changes the meaning of the sentence too, because it doesn't explain why the beating occurred, unlike the original sentence. – stangdon Jan 31 '18 at 19:40