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I was asked to choose, between two options, the correct. The question:

A pair of words formed with prefixes that convey the same meaning is
( x ) inside/intimate
( ✓ ) impossible/discourage

It's claimed that the answer was the second one because both "im" and "dis" hold similar contrary meaning. Nevertheless, at a first glance, I didn't even hesitate to choose the first option, because, unlike the second alternative, they have prefixes "in" and the word "intimate" is certainly related to something from "inside".

My confusion comes from the fact that the question structure is utterly ambiguous, since either "a pair of words" or the "prefixes" can convey the same meaning.

How can I properly argue, based on grammar or concrete references, that the ambiguity present in the question: A pair of words formed with prefixes that convey the same meaning confuses readers and makes two possible answers if there were?

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  • This sounds like homework or testing and I cannot understand the real question. Not sure the the in in intimate is like the in in inside. That could be your mistake. Intimate comes from the Latin intimus.
    – Lambie
    Sep 28, 2021 at 16:38
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    The title of your question and the question itself have no connection.
    – BillJ
    Sep 28, 2021 at 16:55
  • It's not a homework. It's just a sentence, which I couldn't drop here without context, of a problem. I'm asking if it has ambiguity or not. If so, what is the reason for it (even if it doesn't fully justify the answer of the question)
    – testing_22
    Sep 28, 2021 at 17:08
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    Your question words also has three verbs with tense, but your subject doesn't have to reflect that. Subjects reflect the CONTENT of the question, which is about prefixes, not relative clauses.
    – gotube
    Sep 28, 2021 at 17:26
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    There is no relative clause in the question. The sequence "that this restrictive clause is ambiguous" is not a relative clause but a declarative content clause functioning as complement of "argue"
    – BillJ
    Sep 28, 2021 at 17:44

2 Answers 2

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If I understand your argument, I'm afraid it won't hold up. You've edited to make it clear that your hope is that the wording of the question is open to interpretation. I think most people would understand the prompt to ask: "The words in which pair are formed from [a pair of] prefixes that have similar meanings?"

While it is true that the phrase A pair of words formed with prefixes that convey the same meaning could also be parsed as "A pair of words that convey the same meaning, which happen to be formed with prefixes," then we still have a few problems. One is that neither pair is a good pair of synonyms. Inside and intimate are related but not "the same meaning," and impossible and discourage are even more different. The other, simple problem is the plural form of the word "prefixes." A case can be made that inside and intimate share a "prefix," since the etymology of intimate shows it to be the superlative form of the PIE root in ... but even if that weren't a stretch (there's a difference between "formed with a [recognized English] prefix" and "derived, by way of Latin, from the same PIE root as that English prefix"), then it would be the same "prefix" for both, and the pair could not be described as "formed with prefixes."

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  • Thank you for your response! So after all is it reasonable to say that the question is correct in terms of not being invalidated, even though it is open to interpretation?
    – testing_22
    Sep 28, 2021 at 18:53
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    LOL, I have trouble parsing your question—but—it's reasonable to say "Although the wording of the question could have two meanings, one of those meanings doesn't make sense with the available answers." Though as is often the case, it is certainly a confusing question (given the etymology argument about "in"), and could have been clearer had it said something like A pair of words formed with prefixes that both convey the same meaning... Sep 28, 2021 at 19:04
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    @testing_22 The only people who would misread the question are people who don't have the knowledge the question is testing (or maybe those who know but have trouble taking tests in general). I don't think you can reasonably argue that the way the question is phrased could cause someone who knew about prefixes to answer incorrectly.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 28, 2021 at 19:13
  • Nice, I'd love to have your opinion in an answer outside this comment area @ColleenV. I indeed knew there weren't truly "prefixes" in that option. However, I did not notice that it's asked about same meaning prefixes not pair or words, because there wasn't any constraints nor clues. IMHO the word positioning was truly misleading, even though grammatically correct.
    – testing_22
    Sep 28, 2021 at 19:21
  • Right on point @AndyBonner. I wonder now if it's worth to fight for the annulment of this quest. because of the first interpretation (pair of words that convey), even if it doesn't have a 100% correct possible answer (inside/intimate) because of all you said.
    – testing_22
    Sep 28, 2021 at 19:26
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Two main rules in resolving ambiguity are "in which interpretation is the thing modified closest to the modifier" and "which interpretation makes the most sense". In this case, both point to "convey the same meaning" modifying "prefixes".

My confusion comes from the fact that the question structure is utterly ambiguous, since either a pair of words or the prefixes can convey the same meaning.

No, "convey the same meaning" can't modify "pair of words", because "convey" is plural, and "pair" is singular. It would have to modify "words". So you would have to argue for the reading

A pair of 
    words 
         formed with prefixes
         that convey the same meaning
is 

rather than the reading

A pair of 
     words 
         formed with 
             prefixes that convey the same meaning
is

That is, the test's interpretation takes every modifier as creating another nesting level, but your interpretation requires "that convey the same meaning" keep the nesting level of "formed with prefixes". Normally, when two modifiers have the same nesting level, they are joined with "and": "A pair of words formed with prefixes and that convey the same meaning is". On the other hand, the question would be simpler and less ambiguous if it said "A pair of words whose prefixes convey the same meaning is".

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