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We talked about the boy with a gun from the countryside.

PP Phrases add information to nouns or verbs, but if there is more than one noun in a clause,
Does it cause ambiguity?

Like the example sentence above(may be kind of silly),
is it the boy that is from the countryside or is it the gun that is from the countryside?

The world of turmoil in China.

Same question here, of turmoil will obvioulsy describe world,
but what about the PP in China,does it describe turmoil or the world?

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    Try adding commas to separate them maybe? For example, "We talked about the boy, with a gun, from the countryside." (the boy is from the countryside). – Bella Swan Mar 19 at 10:43
  • @BellaSwan why did you put a comma before with? – Andrew Tobilko Mar 19 at 10:55
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    Text between commas is used to explain the previous word. Even if opted out, the sentence makes sense. So "We talked about the boy from the countryside" is a complete sentence, telling that the boy is from the countryside. The phrase enclosed in the commas, "with a gun" is just telling us about the extra information about the boy. – Bella Swan Mar 19 at 10:58
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    @BellaSwan Or, to be even more clear, use we talked about the boy, who had a gun, from the countryside. If we're conceiving of ambiguity, with a gun could be parenthetical information modifying the conversation rather than the boy himself. – Jason Bassford Mar 19 at 11:30
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    @JasonBassford Yes, and just to point out, the comma is important here too, because "We talked about the boy who had a gun from the countryside" could again mean that the gun belonged to the countryside rather than the boy. – Bella Swan Mar 19 at 11:38
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English sentences can often be ambiguous. Your first sentence has more ambiguity than just that - was it the boy who was "with a gun", or did they talk "with a gun"? In that case, it's reasonably obvious which it is. A lot of ambiguity is resolved with semantics - only some interpretations make sense - or with context - other sentences nearby make it clear which interpretation is intended.

It's hard to completely avoid grammatical ambiguity. Sometimes you can do it with a rephrase, or with commas to make it clear that there's a relatively self-contained phrase. Sometimes picking alternative words or structures will do it, and sometimes re-ordering the sentence is best. For example, your first sentence could be:

They talked with a gun about the boy from the countryside.

They talked about the boy from the countryside, who had a gun.

They talked about the boy, who had a gun from the countryside.

Your second sentence could be parsed as "the (world of turmoil) (in China)", where whatever turmoil is very significant, as in the idiom world of hurt. It could also be parsed as "the world (of turmoil in China)". Any rephrase to clarify to that would likely be wordy, but it's likely that context around the sentence will be able to make it clear.

  • Thanks, I came across this sentence today, "He changed the requirements for international students" , this one seems pretty ambiguous as well (I guess), but what would be the salient interpretation? – jammy yang Mar 21 at 4:47
  • Most likely "he changed the requirements that apply to international students", but it could be "requirements regarding international students" is "requirements on behalf of international students". Context should make it clear. – SamBC Mar 21 at 7:01
  • Thank you so much! – jammy yang Mar 21 at 8:28
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Can they be ambiguous? Absolutely. The longer and more complicated the sentence, the greater the chance. So it is down to the writer or speaker to make sure they exclude any ambiguity.

Usually context makes it clear. Any ambiguity in your sentences is essentially cleared up by context. Why would anyone mention where the gun is from? It's unlikely to be that. World of turmoil is a phrase by itself, so really "in China" refers to the whole phrase.

But ambiguity happens all the time, often with humorous effect.

Please do not bring plastic bin bags to wear. We’ve had runners tripping over them, and they just end up in landfill.

Cameron Diaz encourages women to keep their pubic hair in her new book.

A local man was fined on Monday for repeated trespassing and criminal damage. Margaret River Magistrates Court heard how the man entered a local school building by forcing open a window with another man.

These are all real quotations where ambiguity ends up creating some unexpected results.

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