participles: wearing a mask; dressed as a pirate

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azz

Senior Member
armenian
a. John kissed Sally dressed as a pirate.
b. John kissed Sally wearing a pirate costume.

c. John gave a letter to Sally dressed as a pirate.
d. John have a letter to Sally wearing a pirate costume.


Can we tell who was dressed as a pirate or wearing a costume? John or Sally?

Would a comma before dressed/wearing change anything?

I am not sure that all native speakers agree on how to interpret these sentences. If I am not mistaken the prescriptivist rule is that the phrase modifies the subject, but I am not sure what a descriptivist grammarian would say about these sentences.

Many Thanks.
 
  • se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I would assume the participial phrase qualified the subject. It makes no difference whether there is a comma.

    I am not sure that the presence of a participle is relevant to this either:

    John gave a letter to Fred (dressed) in a pirate costume - John was probably in the costume, with or without the participle.

    I saw a chair (standing) in the corner of the room. The chair was probably in the corner of the room with or without the participle.

    NB LOTS OF EDITS SINCE POST #3! KEITH MAY NO LONGER AGREE.
     
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    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    I don't think it's possible to understand it as being Sally in costume: that is, no reasonable context would make that sound natural. Even if John kissed Sally dressed as a fairy princess, it's still John's taste in clothes we have to question. The participial phrase can hardly be attached to the adjacent noun: it is very awkward to try and use them together as subject, for example.

    :thumbsdown: Sally wearing a pirate costume won first prize at the fancy dress ball.

    Here, however, separating it off with commas does make a difference:

    :thumbsup: Sally, wearing a pirate costume, won first prize at the fancy dress ball. [inelegant but correct enough]
     
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    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    ...it is very awkward to try and use them together as subject, for example.

    :thumbsdown: Sally wearing a pirate costume won first prize at the fancy dress ball.
    But what's wrong with "Sally, wearing a pirate costume, won first prize at the fancy dress ball"?

    And "John was awarded first prize by the judge wearing a pirate costume" would, to my ear, tip the balance convincingly onto the indirect object (the judge) being the one in disguise.

    As I said, ambiguity lurks and a good writer will usually try to avoid this.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Aha, cross-posted: I thought of that and added it as you were posting.

    Now the presence of 'the' does make a difference: it makes the participial phrase a specifying one, so we can use 'the judge wearing a pirate costume' and even 'a judge dressed as a fairy princess' in any position. If there's more than one Sally, we can talk about the Sally wearing the pirate costume. So it's the bare proper name which seems to be the problem.

    And indeed, once we have an article, a comma and its intonation have a separating effect:

    John gave the letter to a judge wearing a pirate costume. [probably the judge]
    John gave the letter to a judge, wearing a pirate costume. [probably John]
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    a. John kissed Sally dressed as a pirate.
    b. John kissed Sally wearing a pirate costume.
    c. John gave a letter to Sally dressed as a pirate.
    d. John
    gave a letter to Sally wearing a pirate costume.

    Can we tell who was dressed as a pirate or wearing a costume? John or Sally?
    No. All four sentences are ambiguous, and simply a comma after "Sally" wouldn't help any of them.

    Clarity, if it was John who was costumed, would require moving the descriptive phrase to follow his name and setting it off with commas: John, dressed as a pirate, . . .

    If Sally was thus dressed, then a comma and a couple of words would clarify the situation: . . . Sally, who was wearing . . .
     
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