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The problem with modifiers…

Sometimes, it’s not clear in a sentence which head nouns an adjective is modifying, as in the well-used example of ‘fresh fruit and veg’. Does the word ‘fresh’ modify ‘fruit and veg’ or does it just modify ‘fruit’? Anyway, last week, I was scouring the internet during my morning orange juice when I came across the following tidbit.


Of course, the issue here is whether the sentence should be parsed:

AdjP (100% natural) GP (kids NP (bean bag chair))

In this case, the adjective phrase ‘100% natural’ premodifies the genitive phrase ‘kids bean bag chair’, with an embedded noun phrase ‘bean bag chair’. Reading it in this way, the sentence could be interpreted as ‘a 100% natural bean bag chair for kids’.

Or whether the sentence should be parsed as:

NP (100% natural kids) NP (bean bag chair)

Here, the noun phrase ‘100% natural kids’ (with premodifying adjective ‘natural’) premodifies the following noun phrase ‘bean bag chair’, leading to a far more sinister interpretation of ‘a bean bag chair filled with 100% natural kids’.

Beware ambiguous modifiers!

The Social Linguist

N.B. I’m not a syntactian by any means, so if my analysis is out here, please let me know and I’ll update!

Categories: Random Tags: , ,
  1. October 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    I’m not sure it’s the modifier that makes this seem ambiguous but whether “kids” is treated as an adjective or a possessive. In other words, it’s the lack of the apostrophe after the plural noun that makes it ambiguous. If the sentence read “where can I get a 100% natural kids’ bean bag chair?”, then your first version would be the only way to parse it (I think?!).

  2. October 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    Well yeah, if it was ‘kids’ natural bean bag, then parsing one is right, but whether it’s the lack of an apostrophe that make it ambiguous or whether it’s the word ‘kids’ itself seems to be splitting hairs!

  3. October 9, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Splitting hairs seems to be a pretty good description of syntactics…

  4. October 9, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Har! I have no comment.

  5. October 10, 2012 at 12:22 am

    I appreciate the problem with the placement of the modifiers, but I think the meaning is clear. I think I’ve seen much worse examples of modifiers mangling meaning.

  6. October 10, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Oh, I don’t have a problem with the intended meaning, and it’s absolutely clear given the context of the example! My point was more to demonstrate one of the more… interesting examples of modifier mangling 🙂

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