a. He accused me of lying justifiably.

Is the above sentence ambiguous?

I think that in theory it means:

b. He accused me of justifiably lying.

but I think in practice it can also mean (people use it when they mean):

c. He justifiably accused me of lying.


d. He accused me of lying angrily.

I don't think there is anything really wrong with that sentence, and I doubt that anyone would think that I had lied angrily (although that is a possibility).

Many thanks.

  • 3
    If the lies are justified, why would this be an accusation? You only accuse someone if they've done something wrong.
    – alphabet
    Apr 9 at 5:08
  • Without context this is a pointless question because it can't be reliably interpreted without a full context. And with a full context it would be pointless because the intended meaning would be obvious anyway. Apr 9 at 11:20
  • Does this answer your question? Is there any thing ambiguous about 'like to do something a lot' Apr 9 at 11:22

1 Answer 1


The verb 'accused' takes an object, 'me'. I.e. 'He accused me'

'of lying' is an adverbial phrase, in that it is modifying the verb 'accuse'.

In general we can place the adverb at the start of the clause, between subject and verb, or at the end of the clause.


If we consider the verb 'accuse', it means 'claim someone has done something wrong'. Meanwhile a 'justified lie', in general would not be immoral/not be a wrong. So the verb 'accused' should dispel the ambiguity in the phrase.

However, we can consider the problem of 'misplaced modifiers' https://webapps.towson.edu/ows/moduleDangling.htm

In this context it is best to say 'he justifiably accused', because the adverb is correctly placed and eliminates the impression that 'justifiably' is modifying 'lying'.

So I would say that there is no ambiguity due to the verb choice, but with a different verb it could be ambiguous.

For example, 'John claimed Sarah lied justifiably' is entirely ambiguous, in that it could mean 'John's claim that Sarah lied has evidence to support it', or it could mean 'Sarah lied, but John claimed that she had valid reasons to do so.' Therefore that sentence would work better as something like 'John justifiably claimed that Sarah lied' or 'John claimed that Sarah's lying was justifiable'.

  • 1
    The text is inherently ambiguous without a full context, and I think it's misleading / irrelevant what you think might be the most likely context. Consider exactly the same construction as used in He accused me of lying recently, where absent context it's completely pointless to speculate as to whether recently attaches to the lying or the accusation. Apr 9 at 11:18
  • 1
    no, the text is not ambiguous, because the word 'accused' precludes the interpretation 'she lied with justification'. It is not necessary to posit alternatives where it is ambiguous, especially as I already pointed out this issue in my answer.
    – thelawnet
    Apr 9 at 16:37
  • 1
    So far as I'm concerned, justifiably in OP's first example could be either a "whole sentence adverb" - in which case it's the same as putting it at the front (i.e. it effectively modifies [he] accused) OR it could modify immediately preceding lying. Apr 9 at 17:14

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