last night

This is the place to post questions and discussions on usage and style. The members of the Wordwizard Clubhouse will also often be able to help you to formulate that difficult letter.
Post Reply

last night

Post by azz » Tue Jul 21, 2020 2:48 am

a. He showed me an article which he had written last night and which was about whales.

Could 'last night' modify 'showed'?

Could the sentence mean:
Last night he showed me an article which he had written and which was about whales.

I know that (a) is an awkward sentence, but it it grammatical. I want to see if it is ambiguous. To me it seems that 'last night' can only modify 'had written', but I am not sure about that.

Many thanks.

Re: last night

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Jul 21, 2020 2:53 am

Your presumption is correct.

The sentence will only be ambiguous to someone who is deliberately imposing a perversely implausible interpretation on it, in which case the ambiguity can be said to be contrived rather than real.

Re: last night

Post by Phil White » Tue Jul 21, 2020 5:07 pm

I would tend to concur with Erik and yourself, but I feel that the case is less strong if you drop the relative pronoun, as is generally done in speech, and in particular if you lose the second relative clause as well.

"He showed me an article he had written last night."

The syntactical structure remains identical with the original example, but this version is far more readily understood as "Last night he showed me ...".

That said, if you re-introduce the information about the subject of the article in a different form, the sentence becomes more ambiguous again:

"He showed me an article about Wales he had written last night."

As the "last night" moves further away from the verb "showed", the less likely it is that it will be understood as qualifying the verb (although the potential for it to do so still remains, and it would be a perfectly good grammatical reading of the sentence).

So what do we take from that? That syntax and grammatical accuracy alone do not determine or eliminate ambiguity. How my sentence above and, possibly, your sentence would be understood depends on far more than mere grammatical structure.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

Post Reply