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Context: I tried to hang a picture on the wall, but it’s too high to hang it, so I climbed on the chair and hung it on the wall.

Why can’t I say “I hung a picture on the wall on the chair” in this situation?

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  • 13
    You can say it, in the sense that it's grammatically valid. But it is difficult to understand, and in fact it tends to lead the hearer to a wrong interpretation more than the right one.
    – LarsH
    Sep 6 at 13:36
  • This is a completely, totally normal thing to say. English is incredibly ambiguous, and it is completely, totally normal that people say exactly the type of thing you have given as an example.
    – Fattie
    Sep 8 at 13:24
  • 3
    @Fattie I mean I can imagine somebody saying this, and I can equally imagine that my response would immediately be, "You WHAT now?" because it's quite a twisty, confusing sentence. Sep 8 at 14:27
  • If you say this, your listener will, eventually, figure out your meaning. It will not, however, quickly convey your meaning and will require your listener to stop following the conversation to parse the sentence to make sense of it. That will derail the conversation and end up causing someone to have to repeat something to pick things up and get moving again, or force the listener to abandon the next sentence or two while parsing this one.
    – FreeMan
    Sep 8 at 16:02

11 Answers 11

42

Mainly because the wall isn't on the chair.

People naturally refer back to the previous object for reference. If you said it this way there's no context that puts you on the chair.

If you were to change that to “I hung a picture on the wall standing on the chair”, then even though there is still ambiguity - why is there a wall standing on a chair? - the listener would likely reach the correct interpretation.

You could go one step further and remove the ambiguity altogether by adding one last cue/pointer…

“I hung a picture on the wall, by standing on the chair”

We've now removed sufficient ambiguity from the situation that no-one would be confused - even if you didn't actually hang the picture literally by standing on a chair, you hung it by hammering a nail in the wall and suspending the picture cord from it; that's more detail than necessary to impart the information to your listener.

You could go for even more clarity and use

“I hung a picture on the wall, by standing on the chair so that I could reach”

but again, I feel we've already passed the point of sufficient clarification.

Many, many years ago [50 or 60] there was a series of newspaper 'want ads' that would intentionally distort this perspective or back-reference, for comedic effect. I always remembered this one as a perfect example…

"Bath wanted, for old lady, with tin bottom"

Even with the commas to separate clauses, it still pushes your mind to the wrong conclusion.

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  • In this case, then, should I say “something (=hanging) happened on the wall? Sep 5 at 9:23
  • I'm not sure what you mean by that. You already covered 'something happening', you hung a picture. Sep 5 at 9:26
  • 14
    I tried your advice and stood on a chair for an hour but the picture is still lying on the sofa. My wife says I am stupid I should have realise the sentence was not correct and you have to hang the picture yourself. So “I hung a picture on the wall, whilst standing on a chair”
    – Brad
    Sep 5 at 9:31
  • 2
    @Brad - If you have a different answer, why not provide a different answer, rather than re-answer in comments? Sep 5 at 9:34
  • 5
    "[Standing] on the chair, I hung a picture on the wall" perhaps
    – abligh
    Sep 6 at 5:31
19

An alternative to gone fishin' again's answer:

I stood on the chair to hang a picture on the wall

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    I think this is far more idiomatic. The suggestions in the other answer sound like they come from a fluent speaker of English as a second language.
    – larsks
    Sep 7 at 0:53
  • This. but too many words. OP, just needs your word switch, and the word 'while' in front to remove ambiguity: "While on the chair, I hung a picture on the wall."
    – mcalex
    Sep 7 at 6:16
14

Others have mentioned good solutions, but something I would like to add is that I actually think this is a perfectly valid sentence in English, it's just a little ambiguous and hard to understand the meaning by reading it once.

So the answer to "Why can't I say this", should be "You can say this, its just the listener might get confused". I think other people would understand if they had more context, such as if they physically saw what happened.

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    I disagree. The validity of a sentence is in an inverse relationship with its ambiguity. Sentences exist to convey something specific from someone to someone else. There are many gramatically correct nonsense sentences you could make, but that doesn't make them valid. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is a complete and grammatical sentence, but it would be a stretch to call it "perfectly valid". Sep 7 at 13:47
  • It IS a perfectly valid sentence. The meaning of the sentence is perfectly clear too, there is no ambiguity. "I hung a picture on the wall on the chair" means that there is a wall somehow affixed to the chair, and I hung a picture on that wall. It is a perfectly clear and valid sentence, but it does not convey the meaning the OP intends.
    – PcMan
    Sep 8 at 5:25
  • @StianYttervik Ok, I'll ask; how do you parse the buffalo sentence? I guess it's to do with the town of Buffalo, the animal called a buffalo and the verb to buffalo (intimidate), but I can't figure it out... Sep 8 at 8:16
  • @OscarBravo Buffalo[-resident] buffalo [do] buffalo [the] Buffalo[-resident] buffalo [that] Buffalo[-resident] buffalo [do] buffalo.
    – Davislor
    Sep 8 at 8:28
  • I disagree. I’d call this a misplaced modifier. The rule that a phrase like “on the chair” is supposed to modify the previous antecedent is optional enough that you can’t rely on it, but this sounds unidiomatic to me and I didn’t understand it until the OP explained it. On the other hand, “I put the apple in the bag on the table,” could mean either that I took the apple from the bag and set it on the table, or that I placed the apple inside the bag that sits on the table, and I can easily imagine hearing that in careless speech.
    – Davislor
    Sep 8 at 8:39
13

The sentence "I hung a picture on the wall on the chair" is too ambiguous. It has several possible interpretations, and it's unlikely that a person hearing the sentence will think of the correct interpretation.

When I read the sentence, the first interpretation I thought of was, "I hung the picture in such a way that it was hanging from the wall (and not the chair), but it was also hanging from the chair (and not the wall)." That obviously doesn't make sense.

The second interpretation I thought of was, "There was a picture on the wall, and I took the picture down from the wall and hung it on the chair." That would make sense, but it's kind of a strange interpretation.

The intended interpretation didn't even occur to me.

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    FWIW, in text, there's also the possibility to interpret it as a typo for "I hung a picture of the wall on the chair," which is a perfectly grammatical and unambiguous sentence — its only difficulty is that it unambiguously describes a pretty weird situation. (Why do you have a picture of nothing but a wall? Why would you hang it on the back of a chair? Why are you telling me about it?) Sep 6 at 15:17
7

I hung a picture on the wall from a chair. I hung a picture on the wall from a ladder.

from indicates where you were in order to hang the picture.

It's as simple as that in my view.

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  • People certainly hang ladders on walls, and no doubt some people also hang chairs on walls (e.g. for storing folding chairs). "The ladder was on the wall and I hung the picture from the ladder" seems a possible (and sensible) interpretation of your second sentence IMO.
    – alephzero
    Sep 5 at 21:43
  • @alephzero In these examples, the phrase "hung a picture on the wall" implies the picture is connected to the wall. The sequence of the spoken nouns is expected to reflect the physical sequence of the objects: "I hung a picture from a chair on the wall". Sep 8 at 0:21
  • This is the correct answer. It's to the point and demonstrates this seemingly complex problem can easily be solved with proper use of prepositions.
    – EllieK
    Sep 8 at 14:03
  • When you want from to indicate where you were, it can be used that way. It can also be used to indicate where the item came from. I hung a picture on the wall from my mother. Means your mother gave you the picture and then you hung it. It can be more clearly written, I hung a picture from my mother on the wall.
    – EllieK
    Sep 8 at 15:33
5

Although I totally agree with the cause of your problem.

The wall is not on the Chair.


I don't entirely agree with the solution.

What we need to do is show the method which we used to hang the picture.

I would also suggest that we should add the context of why we needed to do this.

I hung a picture on the wall. I was able to reach the correct height by using a chair to stand on

by C.E.D preposition (METHOD); used to show how something is done:

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    It is not the question but; What you can say is “I was standing on a chair while hanging a/the picture”
    – Brad
    Sep 5 at 10:03
5

As others have said, the problem is that "on the X on the Y" normally means "the X that is on the Y", for example

I hung the picture on the hook on the wall.

For your intended meaning, the most natural thing to say IMO (which I don't think has been suggested yet) would be

I hung the picture on the wall using a chair.

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    "... using a chair" makes it sound like the chair is part of the hanging arrangement, like you used the chair as a substitute for a hook.
    – kaya3
    Sep 6 at 22:56
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If the sentence doesn't make sense, forget it and just say what happened!

I stood on the chair and hung the picture up on the wall. Nuff said.

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    Although the advice here may be good, I don't think it answers the question - there's no extra understanding it gives to the situation. BTW, it's a good idea to avoid non-standard phrases like "Nuff said" on this site, given that it's aimed at English language learners. Sep 6 at 13:15
  • @TobySpeight an even better idea would be to just comment that it's an informal but common short form of enough said, so the OP gains some extra understanding, rather than just saying it should not be used. Sep 7 at 14:58
  • The question "Why can't I say..." has been answered several times already. It doesn't seem to be the only issue the OP want's to resolve however; rather it calls for a better sentence that scans without having to take it apart – an idiomatic one. For my part, the previous attempts at this are woefully missing the point: making a readable sentence calls for throwing out the bad and starting with a clean slate. BTW the word 'nuff' may not be dictionary English, but it's not a bad idea to be open to slang. In some registers – e.g. a party – it's eminently suitable.
    – Timm
    Sep 8 at 18:40
1

In theory, you could say:

I, on the chair, hung a picture on the wall.

This doesn't sound fluent, but it only takes a few seconds to puzzle out the meaning. “On the chair” is clearly associated with “I”, and “the picture” is clearly being “hung on the wall”.

Adding “from” makes it clearer:

I, from on the chair, hung a picture on the wall.

This is clearer because it explains how “on the chair” relates to the rest of the sentence, using a subordinate clause. That also means you can put it (nearly) wherever you like in the sentence; just after “I” is not a good place, but these work:

  • From on the chair, I hung a picture on the wall.

  • I hung a picture on the wall from on the chair.

This last one is just what you wrote, with “from” added.

1

It might be helpful to think about what happens when you omit "on the wall" altogether.

I hung a picture on the chair.

It's grammatically valid but it's not what you meant - which (borrowing from wizzwizz4's answer) is more like:

I, on the chair, hung a picture.

-1

The given sentence is 100% normal, commonplace, and correct in English.

If you say it the "other" way it is still ambiguous.

Almost all sentences in English are highly ambiguous and can only be understood in context.

It is extremely misguided and shows a huge misunderstanding of English, to describe the sentence as "wrong".

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    Sadly, I have to agree with large parts of this answer. So many people utter perfectly correct, yet absolutely ambiguous sentences that saying something like this is commonplace. However, being commonplace still doesn't make it for good communication, and encouraging ambiguous communication doesn't bode well.
    – FreeMan
    Sep 8 at 15:59
  • 1
    Downvoted because I think this answer is misleading in that this sentence doesn't sound at all colloquial to me (native speaker, AmE) even though it is understandable. It seems to me like the rules of English aren't so much flexible as just poorly defined and hard to quantify. In this case it seems like the rules only apply after some threshold and the OP's sentence seems to fall on the not colloquial side of the line, even though other, similar sentences may be on the OK side of the line. ("I hung a picture on the wall from a chair.") Sep 8 at 15:59

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