Adverbs modify things, but in the following sentence is "quickly" modifying "ran and hid" or just "ran"? "The child quickly ran and hid under the porch." It's a question of structural ambiguity.
Structural Ambiguity (aka, Word Order Can Change Meaning)
The kind of ambiguity created by these sentences is known in linguistics as “structural ambiguity.” It exists when the different parts of a phrase could be arranged in more than one way, yielding more than one meaning.
Structural linguistics explores the fact that the meaning of sentences is not based only on the meaning of individual words. It’s also based on the order of those words—the “structure” of the sentence.
Consider these two sentences:
- The dog bit the man.
- The man bit the dog.
Both contain the same words. But when you change the order of the words, you completely change the meaning.
Structural Ambiguity Can Be Funny
Where there’s a possibility for confusion, there’s usually a possibility for humor, and the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania keeps a list of funny sentences and headlines (intentional and unintentional) that come from structural ambiguity.
One classic joke you maybe have heard before comes from Groucho Marx, who said, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.”
That joke uses structural ambiguity because the prepositional phrase “in my pajamas” could describe how the shooter was dressed, but it could also describe the location of the elephant.
Because headline writers are often trying to cram information into a headline, they’re an easy place to find unintentionally funny juxtapositions or words that could have two meanings, and the Penn site has many including
- He Found God at the End of His Rope
- Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
- Lansing Residents Can Drop Off Trees
In Conclusion …
So, what’s your takeaway from this segment?
Remember this: In English, the scope of a modifier tends to extend to the words that follow it. So be careful writing a sentence like, “She wildly drove to the hospital and operated on the patient”—unless you really mean that the doctor both drove and operated wildly.
Garner, Bryan A. The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Adverbs, Position of Adverbs. The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Rowe, Bruce M., and Diane P. Levine. A Concise Introduction to Linguistics, 4th ed. Chapters 5 and 6. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.
Stageberg, Norman C. “Structural Ambiguity for English Teachers.” Selected Addresses Delivered at the Conference on English Education, no. 6, 1968, pp. 29–34.