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Imagine a police officer spots the boy who is mentioned in the following sentence and reports or calls another related police officer.When the first police officer said this sentence,

The boy driving the BMW is underage, unlicensed and over the limit.

Because he/she used reduced relative clause and because it is not clear whether or not the boy was driving the car and stopped or still driving the car,isn't there an ambiguity in the meaning ?

I mean I can understand in two way the original sentence.

The boy who is driving the BMW is underage, unlicensed and over the limit. (he couldn't be stopped)

The boy who was driving the BMW is underage, unlicensed and over the limit.( he was stopped)

To avoid from ambiguity , can we say native speakers do not use reduced relative forms in this case?

  • I think if they meant past tense, they'd put was in there somewhere... as you did in your second example. The original sentence sounds like something a cop in pursuit of the boy would say to someone else while it's happening. – Catija Feb 18 '15 at 23:51
  • @Catija Thank you .Then if we say "The boy driving the car WAS underage, unlicensed and over the limit." , it likely to suggest that the boy was stopped? – Mrt Feb 19 '15 at 0:02
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    Nothing about the sentence implies that the kid got stopped. Look at it this way... one night, a parent calls the cops and tells them that their son (who doesn't have a driver's license) drank all the scotch in the house and stole their car... The news gets word of it because his reckless driving causes some accidents but he evades capture... the reporter on the news the following morning could say The boy driving the car WAS underage, unlicensed and over the limit.... it just means the event is over... not that he was captured. – Catija Feb 19 '15 at 0:10
  • Do you mean "stopped" as in detained by the police, or no longer driving? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 19 '15 at 0:15
  • @Catija Thank you again.I see what you mean.When we use "was" it has something to do with when the incident happened.For example somebody must have seen the boy while he was driving but and when the reported referred to the incident they will use "past form" because it happened in the past. – Mrt Feb 19 '15 at 0:18
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To avoid from ambiguity, can we say native speakers do not use reduced relative forms in this case?

We cannot say that; most native speakers probably would use the reduced clause here.

But in fact it is unlikely that there would be any ambiguity. Keep in mind that sentences are not spoken in isolation, the way they appear in textbooks: they occur in the context of a discourse. I find it very unlikely that the officer would not already have made clear whether he was speaking of a misdemeanant he was pursuing or a misdemeanant he had stopped.

(Besides: how can he know the driver is underage and unlicensed unless he has stopped him?!)

It is a 'rule' only in written language that any conceivable ambiguity should be anticipated because "Anything which can be misunderstood will be." The corresponding (and contrasting) rule in spoken language is that "Anything which can be taken for granted should be omitted."

  • Thank you.I see your points.When it comes to possibilities the boy could have been caught and he could have managed to run away again but it is not the case here. Do you agree with Catija and if we say "The boy driving the car WAS underage, unlicensed and over the limit." , it likely to suggest that the boy was stopped? – Mrt Feb 19 '15 at 0:05
  • @Murat Yes, if the report is made from the scene of the infractions. But again, context will determine. Hearers will understand what is meant from everything that is said, not just the form of a particular sentence. – StoneyB Feb 19 '15 at 0:12
  • Thank you.I just modify sentences in order to understand possible subtle differences in meaning in case when I come across them, if they make a sense. – Mrt Feb 19 '15 at 0:28
  • @Murat If he says "was," I think that'd more likely indicate that he's now driven away -- during the stop, the boy is still the driver of the car, so "is" is still appropriate. "He was..." would be if the cop is being asked for details after the stop (or if he doesn't stop the car, after he's no longer seeing it). During the stop, "is" seems more natural. To indicate a stop, he actually announces over the radio that he's doing a stop, and doesn't leave subtle hints about it. – cpast Feb 19 '15 at 4:34
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Even without additional context, the ambiguity is not where you think:

Given this statement:

The boy driving the BMW is underage, unlicensed and over the limit.

The boy is still driving the BMW.

The boy who is driving the BMW is underage, unlicensed and over the limit.

This has the same meaning as the first sentence.


Slight modification, with potential for ambiguity:

The boy driving the BMW was underage, unlicensed and over the limit.

In this case the reference frame during which the driving took place is in the past. This does not necessarily mean that we know the driving has stopped - just that our observation of it was in the past.

Officer! I just saw a BMW and a Honda speed by. They turned on Jackson street and went zooming off toward Smallville. The boy driving the BMW was underage, etc.!!!"

[He may or may not be driving now. We don't know.]

OR:

"Officer! I just saw a BMW and a Honda get in a head-on collision. Both cars are smashed to bits, and blocking traffic. The boy driving the BMW was underage, etc.!!!"

[He is no longer driving.]

There is some ambiguity in the second case, but it would not be resolved by changing the sentence to: "The boy who was driving the BMW was underage, etc.!!!" This sentence would still work in either of the two statements beginning with "Officer!" The important thing is not that the boy isn't driving anymore, it is that he was driving in the time frame in which the events described take place.

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