Ambiguous Adjective Use
Consider the name “the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields”; a music orchestra often heard on public radio. The name is made of two noun phrases and an adjective phrase. The nouns are “Academy” and “Saint Martin”; the adjective phrase is “in the Fields”. What I always wonder is, which noun is the adjective describing? Is the Academy in the Fields? Or was Saint Martin in the Fields? Am I to envision a rural music school, or a meadow hermit?
I call this “ambiguous adjective use”. That very phrase is self-descriptive, for which is ambiguous? The adjective or the use?
Consider “dry cat food”. Which is dry, the food or the cats? Is it dry food for cats, or food for dry cats? And is “wet cat food” wet food for cats, or food for wet cats?
If you fed wet food to a dry cat, or dry food to a wet cat, then in either case that would be both wet cat food, and dry cat food.
Or take “fast car repair”. Is the repair fast, or the cars? And as before: fast repair of slow cars, and slow repair of fast cars, are both fast car repair and slow car repair.
Is a “green apple bin” a green bin full of apples, or a bin full of green apples? Is a “big cat zoo” a zoo full of big cats, or a big zoo full of cats?
Can you think of other examples? It’s a “tricky word puzzle”; but which is tricky, the words or the puzzle?
No doubt grammarians have known about this for a long time. What do they call it?