In the following sentence, who has the happy look on her face, Julie or her mother?

I saw Julie sitting beside her mother with a happy look on her face.

2 Answers 2


It is a little confusing. Perhaps as Michael Harvey mentions it might be improved by commas, or maybe it could be improved by re-ordering the sentence. However, I think we can apply a little context and conclude that almost certainly Julie is the one smiling. If we interpret it the other way, we have a description of the mother:

I saw Julie sitting beside [her mother with a happy look on her face].

Which seems to imply that we need to clarify which mother of Julie we're talking about. Which is possible, plenty of people have multiple mothers. But unless we know something about the facial expressions of the rest of these mothers, "with a happy look on her face" is basically a nonsense description.

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    Nobody ever has 'multiple mothers', human reproduction being what it is. Feb 1 at 21:12
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    There exist people with multiple female parental figures, who would describe both as their mother. One might want to emphasize the biological role, but this isn't universal, so it isn't very helpful in figuring out what the author meant.
    – Zwuwdz
    Feb 1 at 21:24
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    @MichaelHarvey: Consider that adoptive parents are referred to as the child's parent, even when the child is aware that they're adopted. We don't even need to step into any political hotbeds about multiple concurrent mothers in order to find cases of non-biological parents being referred to as the de facto parent which defeat the point you're trying to make.
    – Flater
    Feb 2 at 4:58
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    If you already knew that Julie had two mothers, and one of them always looked happy, whereas the other always looked grumpy, then you could use a sentence like this to indicate which mother Julie sat beside. But that would be unusual and weird - in my culture, at least, having only one mother is much more common. The most natural interpretation of this sentence is that Julie has the happy look. Feb 2 at 5:16
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    Even if we get rid of the problem of identifying mothers by facial expressions, it’s still quite a stretch to attribute the prepositional clause to anyone but Julie. If we said, “I saw Julie sitting beside her sister with a broken leg”, it’s still Julie, not the sister, even though multiple sisters are common and broken legs are a perfectly sensible identifier. Truth be told, I don’t know why, but it seems to be virtually impossible to create a comparable construction where a PP in that position would be taken to be postpositive to anything but the subject or object. Feb 2 at 14:03

The sentence is badly written, because it is ambiguous. A skilled writer would resolve that like this:

Julie had the happy look:
I saw Julie, sitting beside her mother, with a happy look on her face.

Her mother had the happy look:
I saw Julie sitting beside her mother who had a happy look on her face.

  • I mean.. it's a passage from War & Peace (translated version of course) and I ran into this kind of sentences many times so... Feb 1 at 20:58
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    @technophyle That's Tolstoy for you. Feb 2 at 4:53
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    The commas do nothing to reduce whatever ambiguity there may be – quite the opposite. It’s still just as possible to read it as the mother having the happy look as it is in the original (that is, borderline possible), but with the commas it’s now also possible to read it as the speaker being the one who’s sitting next to Julie’s mother. Feb 2 at 13:56
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    @technophyle FYI, in the original Russian text the order is different, leaving no ambiguity: "Julie was sitting, looking happy, next to her mother"
    – IMil
    Feb 2 at 14:35
  • @IMil Which, incidentally, is a nice way to avoid the ambiguity. It may even be read slightly differently: The look comes first and is more important and there is no hint of a causal connection mother -> happiness. Feb 2 at 17:04

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