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Which of these sentences is correct?

  1. I will not attend the next 3 lectures at least.
  2. I will not attend at least the next 3 lectures.

What I am trying to say is that the minimum number of lectures I will be absent from is 3. Thank you!

1 Answer 1

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In English, the scope of an adverbial element (such as at least here) is often ambiguous. See Does changing the position of an adverb change the meaning of these sentences? - which focuses specifically on only, but the general principle1 applies more more widely.

In example #1 as cited, at least could specifically modify the next 3 lectures. Speaker commits to not attending ("boycotting"2) a minimum of 3 lectures, but leaves it open as to whether he will in fact boycott more than 3 lectures.

BUT - #1 could be a "whole sentence adverb", whereby speaker commits to boycotting a few lectures as his minimum response to some situation, but leaves it open as to whether he might take some further action (such as writing to his university's chancellor to demand that the relevant lecture-giving professor be removed from his post, who knows?).


TL;DR: Example #1 is ambiguous, but example #2 can only have the first meaning above.


1 The "general principle" being that by default we assume an adverbial / adjectival element references / modifies the nearest credible candidate verb / noun phrase (the nearest preceding element if there's also an "equidistant" following element). But we take pragmatics into account when identifying credible referents (we choose the interpretation that makes most sense).

2 Perhaps speaker's impending lecture non-attendance is due to illness or holiday plans, rather than some kind of protest / boycott. But that's semantics, which doesn't affect the syntax under discussion.

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