prepositional phrases: order and attachment

Prepositional phrases often provide information about where or when, or about conceptual relationships. Two problems often arise: the order when multiple prepositional phrases are used together, and deciding which other element(s) in the sentence this/these prepositional phrase(s) modify/ies.

Regarding the first, a student wrote:

‘I with my friends went to a steak restaurant at my birthday in [country]’.

Immediately, we have to change at my birthday to either for my birthday and on my birthday.* Then we have to move with my friends, but to where: ‘I went with my friends to a steak restaurant’ or ‘I went to a steak restaurant with my friends’? I would prefer the second: I went almost always requires to place, but never requires with person. The first is possible, but more marked. Then, does in [country] relate more to a steak restaurant or my friends: ‘I went to a steak restaurant in [country] with my friends‘ or ‘I went to a steak restaurant with my friends in [country]’? I would prefer the second: to a streak restaurant and in [country] both relate to where.** for my birthday definitely comes last, though it is possible to refer to my birthday (or one of birthdays) in Korea: I celebrated my first birthday in Korea (with a colleague) sitting (with a colleague) in the stairwell of the language institute building (with a colleague) eating duty-free chocolate and drinking duty-free whisk(e)y (with a colleague) (true story). (Hmmm, another ambiguity: ‘I celebrated (my first birthday) (in Melbourne)’ (true) v ‘I celebrated (my first birthday in Korea)’ (also true).)

So, my preferred version of the student’s sentence would be:

I went to a steakhouse in [country] with my friends for my birthday’

though other orders are possible.

Regarding the second, usually more serious issue, my colleague who teaches interpreting and translating asked me about a sentence in one passage she’d used in class. (Part of my job is to edit passages for translation, but this was not one I’d edited (the -or spellings and the serial comma are a dead giveaway), and may not have noticed the issue even if I had.) The sentence in question read:

Earlier studies have shown that parental favoritism among siblings negatively affects mental health and often triggers behavioral problems in children, teens, and young adults …

My colleague said that her students were divided between those who thought in children, teens, and young adults modified only behavioral problems and those who thought it also modified mental health. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t decide. Clearly, the mental health is also in children, teens, and young adults, but is there anything in the grammar of English which requires that interpretation?

Sometimes when there is verb + noun and noun + prepositional phrase there is a clear reason to prefer or require one interpretation or the other: I ate cereal and eggs on toast v I ate bacon and eggs on toast v I ate bacon and eggs on Saturday. It happens even with a verb and one noun: I ate pizza with anchovies v I ate pizza with friends.***

If the two adverbs were removed:

parental favoritism among siblings affects mental health and triggers behavioral problems in children, teens, and young adults …

I would tend towards the second interpretation, but often in particular causes some blockage of my native speaker intuition.****

The first interpretation is sometimes called the ‘last antecedent’ rule/guideline and the second the ‘across-the-board’ rule/guideline. This issue often happens in statutory interpretation. From what I have read (and I stress that I am not a lawyer), the ‘last antecedent’ rule is preferred, unless there is some good reason why it shouldn’t. Many (?most) (?all) Australian laws are set out sometimes line by line, to show what belongs where. If the sentence in question was a law, they might decide to set it out either as:

parental favoritism among siblings

negatively affects mental health and

often triggers behavioral problems

in children, teens, and young adults …

(requiring the ‘across the board’ interpretation)

or:

parental favoritism among siblings

negatively affects mental health and

triggers behavioral problems in children, teens, and young adults …

(requiring the ‘last antecedent’ interpretation).

But real text is not set out like that. And even setting out Australian laws like that doesn’t prevent all ambiguity, just some of it. Several of the discussions I found online were about a US case which could easily have been avoided if the relevant statute had been set out like an Australian law.

So, the other day, after reading that sentence many times, talking with my bilingual colleague about it and searching online, I couldn’t definitely decide on one interpretation, and I still can’t.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for any natural language to be free of ambiguity.

* Google Ngrams records at my birthday, but only when followed by party, dinner, celebration or parties. for my birthday and on my birthday aren’t always interchangeable. I can go to a restaurant for my birthday one or a few days before or after the actual day. I can go to the dentist on my birthday, but hardly for my birthday. In this student’s case, both for my birthday and on my birthday are applicable, so there’s not much to choose between them, except that for my birthday is more common overall.

** Note that it is possible to add a(nother) prepositional phrase to explain where the friends are: ‘I went to a steak restaurant in Seoul with my friends in Korea’, but adding the same prepositional phrase sounds redundant: ‘I went to a steak restaurant in Korea with my friends in Korea’.

*** Note that it is possible to say ‘I ate with friends’ but impossible (or at least highly unusual) to say ‘I ate with anchovies’.

**** Placing often before the first verb causes me less trouble, but doesn’t, by itself, decide the issue: ‘parental favoritism among siblings often affects mental health and triggers behavioral problems in children, teens, and young adults …’

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One thought on “prepositional phrases: order and attachment

  1. I ate pizza with anchovies started me giggling. Laughter is almost always a good thing. It may not be so good, however, when doing so at 3:30 a.m in bed disturbs one’s sleeping spouse.

    Like

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