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Cited from p. 12 of Introduction to Mathematical Thinking by Keith Devlin:

The man saw the woman with a telescope.

Who had the telescope, the man or the woman?

My question

Who, the man or the woman, had the telescope accoding to the 2 sentences below? Is it ambiguous?

2 sentences I came up with:

  1. The man saw the woman, who was with a telescope.
  2. The man saw the woman, having a telescope.

Related post: Does “The man saw the woman who is bringing the telescope” mean the woman is bringing the telescope?

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  • (1) definitely implies that the woman had the telescope (but who had would be more natural). (2) is not very idiomatic English. It could conceivably mean "Because he had a telescope, the man could see the woman (from far away)". Apr 15, 2021 at 8:39

2 Answers 2

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It is ambiguous (and is a well known example of an ambiguous sentence)

This is the point. English has ambiguous sentences that are only understandable in context. Also every other natural language has ambiguous sentences!

But when writing mathematically you need to be unambiguous. (So how can you do maths if you need to express mathematical ideas in natural language?)

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The author is deliberately providing this as an example of an ambiguous sentence.

The phrase "with a telescope" could be modifying the noun "woman", or it could be modifying the verb "to see". A woman with a telescope is a woman who has a telescope. To see something with a telescope is to see it by using the telescope. So the two meanings are:

  1. The man saw the woman who had a telescope.

  2. The man used a telescope to see the woman.

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