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  • I caught him while investigating.
    (here the investigator is me)
  • I caught him while playing video games.
    (here it was him who was playing video games.)However, It could mean you were playing video games while catching him.

so, my question is that how we determine which person the participle clause is talking about. I feel participle clause can be ambiguous. So, It might depend on the context and logical connection behind a sentence. If a sentence came up and I couldn’t figure out who was doing that thing, how would I determine that?

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  • I caught him [cheating] while playing video games. is not ambiguous to me. I was the one playing. Not him. Because I would have said for that: I caught him [cheating] while he was playing video games.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 29 at 19:59
  • Has this ever actually happened? Has someone ever said something to you which you misunderstood?
    – James K
    Commented Mar 29 at 21:31
  • 2
    Sentences that are isolated, commonly found in exercises and exams, float on paper, devoid of visual clues. But in the real world, we have all sorts of clues; visual, auditory, personal experiences, background information etc. that help determine what is happening, and who is doing what.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 30 at 11:37
  • @Lambie It is ambiguous. The fact that you can use a different construction to make it non-ambiguous doesn’t change that; for the reading where I’m the player, I would say, “I caught him cheating while I was playing video games”. “I caught him cheating while playing video games” is much more likely to be him playing, not me, because cheating and video games collocate; catching and video games don’t. Conversely, “I caught him cheating while tailing his car” will almost certainly be me doing the tailing, because catching someone out collocates with tailing people; cheating and tailing don’t. Commented Mar 30 at 12:15
  • @JanusBahsJacquet It is only ambiguous without context. In an ongoing conversation. it can be very clear. catching and video games don't collocate? That's an odd analysis here. Non-collocation for me is the likelihood one won't find two or more terms in the same discourse. Like writing an math paper with the words equation and shite in it. One can argue forever about this, yet it is possible and it can very well mean "While I was playing video games, I caught him [stealing the remotes].
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 30 at 14:35

3 Answers 3

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'While', as a conjunction, links an action, event or condition to a marked time period. The action in your opening clause is the verb 'caught'. It was you carrying out that action, so many would assume that meant you were also playing the video games. Yes, some might think it ambiguous, or assume that you meant 'he' was playing the games, but in other sentences it might not be so obvious.

To avoid the ambiguity you could say:

  • I caught him while he was playing video games.

Or, if playing video games was the thing you 'caught' him at, you could simply say:

  • I caught him playing video games.
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There's no magic method that you can use. You infer the subject from context. There are some rules of thumb: the closest noun is more likely to be the understood subject, but it is easy to create ambiguities in syntax, and use the ambiguities for jokes.

However I have never known a situation in which 1) the speaker was not intentionally causing ambiguity and 2) I misunderstood the speaker. Every time that someone has used a particle in a sentence, I have had no problem understanding the sentence. You must trust that there is one and only one reasonable interpretation of every sentence you will ever hear.

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Yes, it can be ambiguous who a pronoun refers to. Not just when using the word "while" but in many cases.

Sometimes it's obvious from the context. "While the doctor was operating on the patient, he dropped a scalpel." I assume you mean the doctor dropped a scalpel and not the patient. I expect a doctor to hold a scalpel while operating, so he might drop it. It would be unlikely for the patient to be holding a scalpel. The patient is probably unconscious from anesthetics and so not holding anything that he could drop. Etc.

Sometimes it's clear from grammatical clues, like what pronouns are used. Like, "While the mother was feeding the baby, he started choking." This must mean the baby started choking and not the mother, because if we were talking about the mother we would say "she". Note that if we said "she", it could refer to either one because the baby might be a girl.

Sometimes the writer realizes the sentence could be ambiguous and adds words to clarify. Sometimes a writer will simply add a word or two in parentheses to identify who he is talking about. Like, "Bob met George shortly after he (George) got married." "He" here could refer to either Bob or George. Unless we have other information in context to clarify which was meant, the sentence would be ambiguous.

But yeah, sometimes it's just ambiguous.

There are jokes that rely on the audience making an assumption about who is meant by a pronoun, and then the punchline is to reveal that the speaker meant a different, unlikely person.

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