1

Mark stood next to Tracy, feeling helplessly nervous.

I have a question about this sentence.

If context is added, according to context, can the sentence mean either 1 or 2 below?

  1. Mark stood next to Tracy, and Tracy felt helplessly nervous.

  2. Mark stood next to Tracy, and Mark felt helplessly nervous.

I mean without context, the sentence can mean both 1 and 2.

I think so, but I'm not sure whether I'm right.

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    It can only be 2) – Lambie Dec 6 '19 at 21:53
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    Then the person billowing the black exhaust into the air is Erica, not the bus. :) You have to use and it billows there or as it billows. – Lambie Dec 6 '19 at 22:04
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    Mark and Erika are the subjects of the respective sentences. The phrase refers to the subject unless otherwise specified - ...the bus, which is billowing... – Kate Bunting Dec 7 '19 at 15:33
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    It's theoretically ambiguous. It could be interpreted as referring to Tracy—but it would be very unlikely. While similar constructions are more likely to be ambiguous, this particular one is straight forward. (It would take a deliberate act of misinterpretation to think of it differently.) Unfortunately, two sentences with the same construction can have differing degrees of interpretation. It depends on the exact words that are used. For instance: Mark stood next to the clown, juggling balls. Despite the similar construction, the opposite interpretation is more likely. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Dec 10 '19 at 3:55
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    In sentences like this, it's always best to rephrase them in order to avoid even any appearance of ambiguity: Feeling helplessly nervous, Mark stood next to Tracy. Even if technically they should only be interpreted one way, you sometimes don't know how accurate the author is being with their syntax. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Dec 10 '19 at 3:58
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Mark stood next to Tracy, feeling helplessly nervous.

^ This means that Mark was standing next to Tracy and he was feeling nervous. It cannot mean that Tracy was feeling nervous.

Mark stood next to Tracy, who was feeling helpless nervous.

^ This means that Mark was standing next to Tracy, and that Tracy was feeling nervous. It cannot mean that Mark was feeling nervous.

The general rule is that if you have an independent clause (words that can make a complete sentence on their own), followed by a comma, followed by an adjective (or phrase that acts like an adjective), without a noun or pronoun that acts as a subject, the adjective modifies the subject of the sentence.. This is a basic grammar construct you will see again and again. The adjective never modifies the object of the sentence or another noun in the sentence in these cases; context does not matter.

Mark stood next to Tracy, feeling helplessly nervous.

^ Here Mark is the subject, next to Tracy is an adverbial clause that modifies stood, and the phrase feeling helplessly nervous functions as an adjective. There is no noun or pronoun in feeling helplessly nervous, so the grammar rule applies. Feeling can only modify the subject, Mark.

Mark stood next to Tracy, who was feeling helpless nervous.

^ Here the entire phrase next to Tracy, who was feeling helpless nervous, functions as an adverb which modifies stood. Within that phrase, Tracy, who was feeling helpless nervous functions as a single noun phrase.

It's also worth noting that the adjectival phrase can occur at many places in the sentence:

Mark stood next to Tracy, feeling helplessly nervous.

Mark, feeling totally helpless, stood next to Tracy.

Feeling helplessly nervous, Mark stood next to Tracy.

In all of these three, feeling modifies Mark, the subject of the sentence. Adjective clause that consist of <verb> + ing set off by a comma always refer to the subject of the clause they modify.

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