Category Archives: Grammar

Prepositional Phrases as Modifiers

Dear NT:

You wrote:

>1-For young men looking good is important.
>2-For young men to look good is important.
>3-For young men, looking good is important.
>4-For young men, to look good is important.

>I think all of the sentences 1-4 are ambiguous and could have any >of the following meanings:

>a-Young men think it is important that they look good
>b-Young men think that it is important that others or certain others (presumably women) look good
>c-The speaker believes that it is important that young men look good.

>Is that correct?

First of all, there is no difference between 1 and 3 or 2 and 4. Introductory prepositional phrases are often set apart by commas; however, many authorities (including English Plus) say that it is optional if there are fewer than four words in a single phrase. Still, some authorities do use commas even for shorter phrases. (Note that all authorities note the need for a comma in order to avoid ambiguity.)

It is impossible to stretch the meaning of the words given to say “b,” unless it is a short statement or answer given in context. There is no subject for “looking good” or “to look good,” so it would not mean “b.”

They could mean “c,” but without context, they would have to mean “a.” If the speaker meant “c,” he would put the prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence, closer to the word it modifies.

Remember, most prepositional phrases modify words or phrases they are next to. Sometimes introductory adverbial phrases will modify the verb, but that is unlikely here with just a linking verb unless the phrase is one of time or place.

Perhaps in certain contexts, such sentences could mean “b” or “c,” but without any context, the only meaning that makes sense given the words and word order is “a.”

Various Infintive Forms and How They Are Used

Dear Navi,

You wrote:

Which of the lettered interpretations correspond to which of the numbered sentences below:

 1-He was happy to finish the project.

c – however it could be d if the context allowed it

2-He was happy to be finishing the project. –

a – rarely b if the context allowed it

3-He was excited to finish the project.

Same as 1

4-He was excited to be finishing the project.

Same as 2

a-He was happy/excited that he was in the process of finishing the project

b-He was happy/excited that he was going to finish the project in the future

c-He was happy/excited that he had finished the project

d-He would willingly accept to take on the task of finishing the project.

“To be finishing” amounts to a progressive infinitive, so that means continuous or continuing action. Since there is no future infinitive in modern English, #2 could mean b if the context made it clear. Usually, however, the verb would be in the future tense as well: “He will be happy to finish the project tomorrow.”

More Questions on Phrases

Dear N:

You wrote:

1-He took the saw to use in the workshop.

2-He took the saw to be used in the workshop.. Isn’t there a difference in the meanings of these sentences? Could one use ‘2’ if ‘he’ was the only one who was going to use the saw?

While the context could change the meaning slightly, #1 means that he took the saw so that the saw would be used in the workshop. #2 means that he took the saw that was meant to be used in the workshop as opposed to another saw.

3-They beat him up to scare him.

4-They beat him up to be scared. Is sentence ‘4’ correct?

It really does not make much sense. Usually people do not beat others up in order to scare themselves.

5-They took the body to bury it in the cemetery. 

This means “They took the body in order to bury the body in the cemetery.”

6-They took the body to bury in the cemetery.

This means “They took the body in order to bury it in the cemetery as opposed to another burial site.”

7-They took the body to be buried in the cemetery.

This means, “They took the body meant for burial in the cemetery as opposed to another body.”

Since 5, 6, and 7 are close in meaning, the context could change the meaning, but by themselves, these are the closest interpretations.

Using Infinitives instead of Clauses

Dear N:

You wrote:

 1-I did not leave the house to see her.

2-I did not leave the house in order to see her.

Can’t these sentences have three meanings: a-I was supposed to leave the house in order to see her, but I did not do that. b-I left the house but not in order to see her. I left the house for another reason. c-I stayed in the house in order to see her. If I had left, I would not have seen her.

Could one use a comma after ‘house’ to make it clear that meaning ‘c’ is intended?

You are correct for sentence #2. It would depend on context. The comma does not really do much, but you are correct that putting a comma there would suggest an elliptical clause. Remember, these sentences in English are much clearer using clauses rather than phrases. Indeed, I doubt if any native English speaker would even say #1, though technically the grammar is OK. The expression “leave something to,” especially a piece of property like a house usually suggests an inheritance. For example, my aunt left her house to my sisters and me.

The short answer is, yes, you are technically correct, but English speakers seldom speak that way.

 

 

 

Using Only and Just in Different Places in the Sentence

Dear Mr. T:

You wrote:

1-We only don’t have to wash the dishes.

2-We don’t only have to wash the dishes.

3-We don’t have to only wash the dishes.

4-We just don’t have to wash the dishes.

5-We don’t just have to wash the dishes.

6-We don’t have to just wash the dishes.

Which of the above mean:

a-We don’t have to wash the dishes but we have to do everything else.

Which mean:

b-We can do other things as well. We do not need to limit ourselves to washing the dishes.

and which mean:

c-Not only do we have to wash the dishes, we have to do other things as well.

Again, this may vary slightly depending on context. In each case ask which word is the “only” modifying?

 1-We only don’t have to wash the dishes. This is awkward because it modifies a negative. It really serves little purpose here. Perhaps it suggests “a,” but there is but there is not enough context to say for sure.

2- We don’t only have to wash the dishes. This would normally be followed by another clause or sentence. The implication is certainly “c” because “only” modifies the imperative “have to.”

3-We don’t have to only wash the dishes. This also would normally be followed by another clause or sentence. Because “only” modifies “wash,” it might suggest that you have to do something else to to the dishes, i.e., We have to dry them and put them away. However, depending on the context, it could be seen as modifying the whole expression “wash the dishes,” so that it is suggesting that you not only have  to wash the dishes, you have to do other chores as well.

4-We just don’t have to wash the dishes. This depends on the emphasis. It could mean the same as #1, but the word “just” is a little stronger here so it could be spoken with emphasis. It does not suggest that we have to do anything else when spoken with emphasis.

5-We don’t just have to wash the dishes. Same as #2.

6-We don’t have to just wash the dishes. Same as #3

When Participial Phrases Do Not Work

Dear N:

You wrote:

Is this sentence correct:

1-I did not open the door, letting the cat go out.

Meaning: I did not open the door and let the cat out.

#1 sounds downright silly: How could you let cat out if you did not open the door? Did the cat go through a closed door?

Remember, English tends to prefer clauses over verbal phrases.

Be Direct in Your Language

Dear N:

You wrote:

 Which of these sentences are correct? They are all supposed to mean: “Just because a man hated the victim of a crime does not mean he is guilty. We know that he hated the victim, but we cannot conclude from that that he is guilty.”

1-A man is not guilty because he hated the victim of a crime.

This is OK.

2-A man is not guilty SIMPLY because he hated the victim of a crime.

This is better, perhaps more common would be JUST instead of SIMPLY, but either is fine.

3-It is not because he hated the victim of a crime that a man is guilty.

This is technically OK, but it is hard to follow.

4-It is not SIMPLY because he hated the victim of a crime that a man is guilty.

This also is technically OK but harder to follow.

Phrases as Restrictive Modifiers

Dear N:

You wrote:

1-That was his first movie with Sidney Poitier.

2-That was his first movie, with Sidney Poitier.

In 1 it is clear that ‘his first movie with Sidney Poitier’ forms a single noun phrase. (It was not his first movie. It was his first movie with Sidney Poitier.) Does the comma in 2 make ‘with Sidney Poitier’ non-restrictive? Does 2 correspond to

3-That was his first movie, in which Sidney Poitier had a role.

Good question. The short answer is yes, the comma in #2 implies the phrase is nonrestrictive.

However, sentence #3 needs a word like “also” or “too.” Such a word might help #2 as well. There are ways to make the sentence #2 clearer, e.g. “That was his first movie, and Sidney Poitier was in it, too.” While the restrictive/nonrestrictive rule is clearer with clauses, it does apply to phrases as well.

Modifier Placement – Infinitive Phrase

Dear A K:

You wrote:

Can one say:

a. I have a plan for you to get rich.

b. I have a plan to get rich for you.

I have a plan for you. You can use it to get rich.

You may hear English speakers say such a sentence either way, and it does mean the same thing. However, sentence a is more easily understood. Because the phrase “to get rich” immediately follows “plan” in sentence b, the listener is going to first think that the speaker has his own plan to get rich. That confusion is eliminated in sentence a because the listener understands immediately that the plan is for him, not for the speaker.

Using Clauses to Modify

Dear N;

You wrote:

1-The writer the number of whose books we did not know started speaking.

2-The writer the number of books written by whom we did not know started speaking.

3-The writer the number of whose books was not known to us started speaking.

4-The writer the number of books written by whom was unknown to us started speaking. We did not know how many books this one particular writer had written, He started speaking.

All of these sound terrible. At the very least they need commas. 2 and 4 without any punctuation make no sense at all. These are all very awkward, and no one would speak or write this way. The last unnumbered sentence is fine except for the comma splice—you need a semicolon or a period.

These are the kind of sentences that people joke about because sentences like them are sometimes found in government documents. Do  not make yourself a laughingstock, avoid such language!