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How to parse the sentence "There is a can with a hole in the bottom."

 
 
joydada
 
Reply Fri 8 May, 2015 03:44 am
There are two explanations of this sentence:
1."There/ is /a can /with a hole /in the bottom."and The meaning is :"There is a can in the bottom. And the can is with a hole. And "with a hole" modifies "a can".
2. "There/ is /a can (with a hole in the bottom)." It means that "There is a can.And the can is with a hole in the bottom."

Which explanation is correct?
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FBM
 
  1  
Reply Fri 8 May, 2015 07:43 am
@joydada,
joydada wrote:

There are two explanations of this sentence:
1."There/ is /a can /with a hole /in the bottom."and The meaning is :"There is a can in the bottom. And the can is with a hole. And "with a hole" modifies "a can".
2. "There/ is /a can (with a hole in the bottom)." It means that "There is a can.And the can is with a hole in the bottom."

Which explanation is correct?


2) is correct. 1) is a dangling modifier: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/597/01/
joydada
 
  1  
Reply Sun 10 May, 2015 07:33 pm
@FBM,
Can you give a more specific explantion of why the second one is correct while the first sentence isn't?
FBM
 
  1  
Reply Sun 10 May, 2015 08:18 pm
@joydada,
A dangling modifier happens when you put the modifying phrase in a position where it looks like the wrong noun is being modified.

"Despite being illegal, the car was parked in a handicapped zone."

The subject of the main clause is "the car." The modifier "Despite being illegal," should describe that subject. However, the car itself isn't illegal. Parking it in a handicapped zone is illegal.
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layman
 
  0  
Reply Sun 10 May, 2015 08:25 pm
@joydada,
Given the context, I think it would be hard to misunderstand the intended meaning here.

The supposed ambiguity seems to be whether (1) "there is a can with a hole" (i.e., two things next to each other--say a hole in the ground with a can next to it) or (2) the can has a hole in it.

To be absolutely clear, you could simply say "The is a can with a hole in its bottom (instead of the bottom). That specifies where the hole is and now "bottom" can only refer to the bottom of the can itself--not some other "bottom" like maybe the "bottom cabinet."

But, there's no real way to make sense of "bottom" here unless it refers to the bottom of the can, so I don't really see a problem with the original sentence.

As a matter of principle, though, you should be clear about which words or phrases are modifying what items.
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fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2015 12:57 am
@joydada,
According to Chomsky only context can decide which version is "correct".
In his transformational generative grammar, which rejects traditional "parsing", you are presenting an ambiguous surface structure which can arise from differing deep structures. (Chomsky's work relies heavily on the analysis of ambiguous sentences such as "Flying planes can be dangerous").

Another reference to a contextual argument can be found in the grammar of M. Halliday, who rejected the single sentence as a viable unit for grammatical analysis.

Note that most ESL questions arise from lack of familiarity with native speaker contexts and are demands for a "quick fix rule" based on a single sentence. Unfortunately, most native speakers who respond to such questions only have "traditional grammar" experience, and this can lead to diverse answers.
molokow
 
  0  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2015 01:58 am
@FBM,
OK. When you use 'a' this means that we only know that it is a can of some type - the information is not relevant to interpret the sentence. The most important piece of information is the hole in the bottom of the can.
So, if we were to say that 'the can', then this would mean we already know what the can is. This is simply pointing to the fact that the can is not of interest, and that it has a hole in it.

When you say (2) then you are pointing to the fact that there is a can and it is relevant. There is a can (with a hole in the bottom) - with a hole in the bottom is an after thought.
FBM
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2015 04:13 am
@fresco,
Yes, that's true. Common sense + context take care of most of the ambiguities, and I strongly prefer descriptive grammar over the prescriptive variety. Nevertheless, it's part of my duty to be able to explain the prescriptive rules. It's vastly more important in written forms than in spoken. In particular, academic writing is very rigorous in demanding that there be no possible ambiguities.
FBM
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2015 04:15 am
@molokow,
molokow wrote:

OK. When you use 'a' this means that we only know that it is a can of some type - the information is not relevant to interpret the sentence. The most important piece of information is the hole in the bottom of the can.
So, if we were to say that 'the can', then this would mean we already know what the can is. This is simply pointing to the fact that the can is not of interest, and that it has a hole in it.

When you say (2) then you are pointing to the fact that there is a can and it is relevant. There is a can (with a hole in the bottom) - with a hole in the bottom is an after thought.


I agree that the use of the indefinite article "a" diminishes the importance of the can relative to that of the hole, but I don't think that's the main issue here.

The ambiguity I see that results from the dangling modifier is that the bottom may be the bottom of something other than the can.

'There is a can with a hole in the bottom.'

a) It could be a hole in the bottom of the can.
b) Also, it could be a can with a hole in it somewhere. That can is sitting in the bottom of a larger container.

fresco
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2015 04:24 am
@FBM,
Yes. Good points about "duty" and "academic demands" which reflect the origins of "English Grammar" as an emergent "school subject".....a political attempt to "educate the lower classes" modeled on Latin teaching. I wonder how many English prescriptivists are aware of those origins. Smile
FBM
 
  1  
Reply Mon 11 May, 2015 04:59 am
@fresco,
Not enough, apparently. My (Korean) colleagues still cling to the idea that grammar is king, probably in order to have a career. They don't want to think of it as an ad hoc hodge-podge based on a failed attempt to make it fit Latin rules. Come to think of it, I have an informal discussion group with some seniors tomorrow. I'll ask them if they've ever been taught about that.

When my students come to me with insanely complex and trivial EFL questions it's all I can do to suppress a 'Who gives a ****? This is how we say/write it, just do it that way.' Instead, if I can't answer it immediately, we dig through reference books or search the internet until they're satisfied.
0 Replies
 
joydada
 
  1  
Reply Tue 12 May, 2015 01:37 am
@FBM,
@FBM
FBM wrote:

The ambiguity I see that results from the dangling modifier is that the bottom may be the bottom of something other than the can.

'There is a can with a hole in the bottom.'

a) It could be a hole in the bottom of the can.
b) Also, it could be a can with a hole in it somewhere. That can is sitting in the bottom of a larger container.

That's the ambiguity I saw. So I just want to know how to understand :"There is a can with a hole in the bottom?"
FBM
 
  1  
Reply Tue 12 May, 2015 01:58 am
@joydada,
'There's a can with a hole in its bottom' would be clear.
0 Replies
 
FBM
 
  1  
Reply Tue 12 May, 2015 02:52 am
@joydada,
joydada wrote:

That's the ambiguity I saw. So I just want to know how to understand :"There is a can with a hole in the bottom?"


That's the nature of an ambiguity. You can't be 100% sure unless you recast the sentence. In real life, of course, the visual clues would tell you. There would be a can and if it had a hole in its bottom, that would be it. If there were a larger container and it had a single can sitting in the bottom, that would be it.
0 Replies
 
 

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