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    #1

    Is it ambiguous?

    Hi friends,

    When I ask in English:

    "Who did Mary see walking towards the railway station?"

    Is this phrase ambiguous?

    Does it say that "Mary was walking towards the railway station when she saw someone (and I want to know who)", or does it mean "Mary saw someone who was walking towards the railway station (and I want to know who)", or both meanings would be possible?

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    #2

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    Yes, it is ambiguous. Either meaning could be used.

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    #3

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    And do you know if there is one of the meanings that would be more immediate?

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    #4

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    No; (what does immediate mean? first impression? most obvious meaning? preferred meaning?)

    Context would help; surrounding sentences would give a clue to the meaning.

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    #5

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    Quote Originally Posted by luaya View Post
    Hi friends,

    When I ask in English:

    "Who did Mary see walking towards the railway station?"

    Is this phrase ambiguous?

    Does it say that "Mary was walking towards the railway station when she saw someone (and I want to know who)", or does it mean "Mary saw someone who was walking towards the railway station (and I want to know who)", or both meanings would be possible?
    NOT A TEACHER

    (1) I believe that most books suggest:

    Whom did Mary see walking toward the railroad station?

    (a) I believe the "normal" order would be:

    Mary did see whom walking toward the railroad station?

    (i) The participial phrase seems to modify "whom."

    (2) If you wanted to refer to Mary's walking, then maybe

    it would be helpful to say:

    Walking toward the railroad station, whom did Mary see?

    That is:

    Walking toward the railroad station, Mary did see whom? ("Walking ...." seems

    to modify "Mary.")

    (3) I do not believe that your sentence would be ambiguous

    to most native speakers, but -- of course -- I cannot speak for

    anyone else.

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    #6

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    Quote Originally Posted by luaya View Post

    "Who did Mary see walking towards the railway station?"

    Is this phrase ambiguous?
    Yes, in my opinion it is ambiguous.

    Quote Originally Posted by luaya View Post
    And do you know if there is one of the meanings that would be more immediate?
    The most natural meaning here certainly is the second one, in your own words: "Mary saw someone who was walking towards the railway station (and I want to know who)." It is not so easy or immediate to grasp the other meaning at all.

    In order to ensure the other meaning, you should rephrase it to:

    "Whom did Mary see while walking towards the railway station?"

    or, as TheParser suggested:

    "[While] Walking toward the railroad station, whom did Mary see?"


    Let us analyze the following:

    0) Whom did Mary see walking towards the railway station?
    1) Whom did Mary meet doing the dishes?
    2) Whom did Mary kill studying grammar? (certainly ambiguous)
    3) Whom did Mary answer writing a letter?

    You see, numbers 1 and 2 above are similar to your original example. With the same structure tough, number 3 is different! In number 3 it is natural to understand that Mary herself wrote the letter.

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    #7

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    Quote Originally Posted by luaya View Post
    Hi friends,

    When I ask in English:

    "Who did Mary see walking towards the railway station?"

    Is this phrase ambiguous?

    Does it say that "Mary was walking towards the railway station when she saw someone (and I want to know who)", or does it mean "Mary saw someone who was walking towards the railway station (and I want to know who)", or both meanings would be possible?
    Thanks for the question. I considered posting it too. I'd like to provide a simpler example:

    I saw him walking on the street.

    Is it ambiguous? I believe it's not but I'm not sure.

    Quote Originally Posted by TheParser View Post
    (a) I believe the "normal" order would be:

    Mary did see whom walking toward the railroad station?
    By "normal", do you mean correct?

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    #8

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    I saw him walking on the street.

    Is it ambiguous? I believe it's not but I'm not sure.
    In my opinion this is also ambiguous. But the "degree of ambiguity" is very low, similar to the original example.

    Let us consider some similar structures:

    0') Mary saw him walking towards the railway station.
    1') Mary met him doing the dishes.
    2') Mary killed him studying grammar.
    3') Mary answered him writing a letter.
    4') Mary saw him walking on the street.

    You see, the structure is the same. Whether it is ambiguous or not is related to the verb. There is no definite final answer.

    These sentences (or similar ones) should be the object of a poll to be carefully applied to English native speakers. Depending on the situation and on the person, some of them may sound ambiguous or not. It is not enough to simply state your personal opinion whether they are ambiguous or not - you have to give it an impartial statistical treatment and then try to understand the results.

    Of course many language researches have already studied this subject not just by performing such polls but with many other scientific methods as well. Welcome to the realm of linguistics!

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    #9

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    No, there is no real danger of ambiguity here: if Mary, rather than the object NP, were the intended referent of the participle phrase, 'walking' would, at the very least, be preceded by a comma (corresponding, naturally, to a brief pause in the spoken form), and, most likely, by a conjunction such as 'while'.

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    #10

    Re: Is it ambiguous?

    It could be ambiguous, but I would assume it meant that Mary saw a person who was walking towards the station, and would stick when/while in like Philo to get the other meaning.

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