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Read the letter that I wrote in the evening.

Is the above sentence read as:

(Read the (letter that I wrote in the evening)).
or
(Read the (letter that I wrote) in the evening)?

And is there a different way to write the same sentence without causing such confusion in both scenarios?

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  • 4
    It's ambiguous.
    – Hot Licks
    May 31 at 18:53
  • A straightforward reading of the sentence would be telling you to read the letter that he wrote on a previous evening. Otherwise he is saying to read the letter in the evening. If the latter, it's poorly written.
    – Steve
    May 31 at 19:55
  • 1
    All else being equal, a modifier usually modifies the closest possible referent. (Of course, all else is usually not equal…) However, I feel that this question has been asked before on this site. Jun 2 at 2:32

1 Answer 1

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Without context, it's not clear what the sentence means. From the Wikipedia article for syntactic ambiguity:

Syntactic ambiguity, also called structural ambiguity, amphiboly or amphibology, is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to ambiguous sentence structure.

There are some good examples in that article.

Usually the correct meaning is given by the surrounding text. In isolation, clearer wordings of the above could be:

  • Read this letter. I wrote it in the evening
  • Don't read my letter before the evening

Edit: remove comma splice

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  • 1
    But "Read this letter, I wrote it in the evening" is a comma splice, so you probably want different punctuation.
    – Laurel
    Jun 2 at 2:06
  • @Laurel beat me to it by six seconds (re: comma splice).
    – Damila
    Jun 2 at 2:07
  • @Laurel What would be the best fix in this case?
    – dubious
    Jun 2 at 8:15
  • 1
    You can make it two sentences. It's also an option to replace the comma with a semicolon, but semicolons are a bit stuffy.
    – Laurel
    Jun 2 at 10:57

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