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Jan 10, 2018

"A mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk." Who was drunk? FIND OUT!

This question has been parading itself on Facebook for while now like the madman in Achebe's The Madman, looking for whom would do justice to it. Here is what I've got to say.
"A mother beats up her daughter because she was drunk."Who was drunk? FIND OUT!

The statement, "A mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk" is a clear case of ambiguity. In English, ambiguity is a situation where a sentence can be interpreted in more than one way. Ambiguous expressions, either caused by a phrase or a word/lexical item, are always difficult to be given precise meanings.

There are two types of ambiguity:
1. Lexical ambiguity.
2. Structural ambiguity.

In lexical ambiguity, a word, usually a polysemous word, will make a sentence to have more than one meaning. For example, the word, "grace" in the sentence, "Everyone needs grace to make it in life". This sentence is ambiguous, (that is, it can be interpreted in more than one way) because of the presence of the polysemous word, "grace". Is it that everyone needs grace (as a person) to make it in life, or we need the grace (of God) to make it in life? These are two possible questions that will marry the mind of a reader who comes across such sentence, and this will inarguably leave a reader in a state of confusion while trying to ascertain the intended meaning of a writer.

Structural ambiguity occurs when a phrase makes a sentence to have more than one possible meaning. For example, the phrase, "the shooting of the robbers", in the sentence, "The shooting of the robbers came as a shock", makes the sentence ambiguous. Is it that the shooting (operation) which was done by the robbers came as a shock, or the act of shooting the robbers came as a shock? These are two possible ways one can interpret the sentence.

Having said that, let's analyse our sentence of study:

"A Mother beat up her daughter because she was drunk."

The question is, "who was drunk?". The truth of the matter is that no one can precisely state or tell who was drunk between them because the sentence is assigned with more than one interpretation. The ambiguity of this sentence is caused by the lexical item, she, which is a pronoun. The speaker or writer (of the sentence) assigned two antecedents, "a mother" and "her daughter", to the pronoun, "she", without clearly stating which of the antecedents the pronoun is referring to, thereby making it difficult for the listener or reader to give a precise interpretation to the sentence. So, while some would say that it was the mother who was drunk, others would argue that it was the daughter who was drunk. We don't need to blame them for the different interpretations because the sentence does not carry a precise meaning.

However, only the speaker or writer of such sentence can state/give its actual meaning although that doesn't disambiguate the sentence. But what happens in a case like this where the speaker is unknown or can't be found to give the actual interpretation of the sentence? In a case like this, one will only resort to disambiguating the sentence in order to get a precise meaning. To disambiguate means to give a precise or one interpretation to a sentence or construction which can be interpreted in more than one way. The question now is, "how can one disambiguate or give a precise interpretation to our sentence of study?"


We can disambiguate the sentence by either of the following ways:

1. Inserting a more definite noun phrase "the daughter" and deleting the pronoun "she". So, the sentence should read:

"A mother beat up her daughter because the daughter was drunk."

2. By inserting the appositive phrase "the mother" after "she". So, the sentence should read:

"A mother beat up her daughter because she, the mother, was drunk".

3. Inserting the adjectives (that are nominalised),"former" and "latter", to refer to "mother" and "daughter" respectively:

"A mother beat up her daughter because the former was drunk." (In this case, the mother is the one who was drunk)


"A mother beat up her daughter because the latter was drunk. (In this case, it is her daughter who was drunk).

In sum, ambiguous sentences make it difficult for a reader or listener to understand a speaker's intent. Therefore, for easy comprehension of a statement, a speaker should avoid using ambiguous sentences. 


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    1. Thanks, Charles! I'm glad you love what's happening here.

  2. thanks now I understand better.

  3. This sentence is intentionally made ambiguous. It should have been:

    Drunk mother beats up daughter.


    Mother beats up drunk daughter.

  4. Gotta disagree. Because there are two tenses here (was and beats), the mother is doing the beating now (beats) because the mother or daughter was at one point drunk (was). My read is that unless the mother is beating her daughter because the mother was at one point drunk (but isn't now), the mother is currently beating the daughter because the daughter was once drunk in the past. If you add two words for context at the end, the sentence makes sense:

    A mother beats her daughter because she was drunk (at church)

    The other possibility is along the lines of

    A mother beats her daughter because she was drunk (at a PTA meeting and embarrassed herself and is taking it out on the daughter)

    So my answer is that unless the mother is totally nuts, it's the daughter.

  5. I think personal pronouns refer to the last used pronoun as a rule of thumb. So it is the daughter who was drunk.

  6. that is good description. thanks lot

  7. this thing actually got me puzzled.....femi

  8. This has really been helpful. Thanks.

  9. Anonymous21 May, 2018

    It is the mother that was drunk referring to the first pronounce 'A Mother' so the idea of beating her daughter came over her because she(mother) was drunk.

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  11. Oh dear, so much violence in this. Beating people up is not my cup of tea at all. Whoever is beating anyone up really ought to calm down.

    Good article. 10/10. :)