Both of your examples are grammatical, but what could run you into trouble is when the prepositional phrase only applies to the subject of a passive sentence. For instance:

[A] The problem was found by Vasya in the city.

In this sentence, the prepositional phrase is modifying Vasya so that it tells us that Vasya was in the city when the problem was found. This does not necessarily mean that the problem came from the city. (Think, for instance, of the problem as something that could be photographed. Vasya could be anywhere she wants to be when she solves this problem.)

[B] The problem was found in the city by Vasya.

In this sentence, however, the problem came from the city and Vasya was the one to figure it out.

So in some instances, putting the prepositional phrase before the agent can avoid ambiguity.

1. This still confuses me. I understand [A] to mean that the problem may or may NOT be related to the city (eg an abstract math problem). Vasya might've just found this (math) problem while in the city.

2. Solely based on the sentence alone, and no other context, how can you determine that [B] implies the bolded? Please correct my misinterpretation that [B] simply reorganises [A], with no change in meaning?

  • Before anyone answers, I will note that Vasya is a diminutive form of Vassily, a male Russian name. (0: – CowperKettle Oct 25 '14 at 13:56
  • @CopperKettle Thanks. Is there something about the name that affects my question? I only thought it an arbitrary name from the original question. – NNOX Apps Oct 25 '14 at 13:57
  • 1
    No, whether Vasya is male or female is not important for the question per se. – CowperKettle Oct 25 '14 at 14:01
  • 1
    @CopperKettle: I think the point is worth making. My natural position is still to assume all names ending in -a are female. After working in Latvia a few times I realized that was a somewhat parochial perspective, but it's hard to change ingrained preconceptions. Personally, I'd be much happier if we always used a couple of standard names familiar to Anglophones - Jack & Jill, or Janet & John come to mind because they featured in "primer books" for me as a child. Anglophone theoretical physicists often use Alice & Bob today, which also seems good to me. – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '14 at 22:32

The "original" explication (version B implies the problem came from the city) cited by OP here is slightly misleading. That's a (likely) logical inference, but the only syntactic implication is that the problem was found in the city. Without further context, it's feasible Vasya was an astrophysicist who discovered a problem with the Mars Exploration Rover while in the city.

The referent of in the city is ambiguous in A (it may modify either found or Vasya), but in B it can only modify found. The only way to make it modify the problem would be to place it immediately after the intended target noun...

[C] The problem in the city was found by Vasya

I could be mistaken here, but I think the reason this meaning can't be imposed on OP's A or B is there's a general principle that relative clauses such as in the city must should apply to the nearest credible preceding candidate term.

But that general principle is affected by whether the relative clause is adjectival or adverbial. In some contexts (such as OP's) it could be either, and we can "choose" in advance which we want - before applying the "nearest credible candidate" rule.

There's also the entirely separate issue of whether the relative clause is restrictive (specifically singling out the Vasya in the city, not other Vasyas elsewhere) or non-restrictive (just adding information about the "one and only" Vasya). But that seems excessively contrived in OP's context.

TL;DR: OP's "How can you determine that [B] implies the bolded [interpretation]?" is based on the false premise that it's possible to make such an interpretation at all. Syntactically, it's just not possible anyway.

  • "… there's a general principle that relative clauses such as in the city must apply to the nearest credible preceding candidate term." <== How is "in the city" a relative clause? – F.E. Oct 25 '14 at 22:00
  • @F.E.: Terminology isn't my strong suit, so if I've used the wrong term there, perhaps you can tell me what I should call it. All I mean is it's a clause that only has meaning relative to some nearby text element. And in the case under consideration the issue is "How do we decide which other text element is it associated with?". – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '14 at 22:12
  • I'd probably at first consider "in the city" to usually be a preposition phrase (PP). – F.E. Oct 25 '14 at 22:13
  • @F.E.: It may well be a PP - but assuming you're only calling it that because it starts with a preposition, I can't see that as particularly useful here. Exactly the same potential ambiguity arises with, say, lurking in the shadows (if we allow problems can figuratively lurk). I really need a designation that covers most/all such constructions where the "target" may be ambiguous. – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '14 at 22:20
  • Could you provide a grammar source that uses your naming convention? – F.E. Oct 26 '14 at 1:56

Change "problem" to "cat":

[A] The cat was found by Vasya in the city.
[B] The cat was found in the city by Vasya.

Is it any clearer? If so, why?

  • 1
    Even there you'd have to accept that the cat itself may never have been anywhere near the city. Perhaps the cat has always roamed the countryside - but it's got an implanted radio transmitter, and Vasya tracked it down remotely using all kinds of hi-tech equipment in the city. – FumbleFingers Oct 25 '14 at 22:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.