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I met him drunk

In the sentence, “I met him drunk,” couldn’t the adjective apply to either party, the “he” or the “I”?

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I suppose on purely grammatical grounds it could, but no native speaker (just sampled my office so VERY small sample) took the drunk to apply to "I," only to "him."

Janet August 1, 2006, 7:07am

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I think the phrase may be somewhat ambiguous. "I met him while drunk" could mean "I met him while he was drunk" or "I met him while I was drunk". Only, I would think it more likely that the speaker is the drunk one. Try constructing some similar sentences with missing pronouns, only ones where it is clear from the context what is meant. Consider: "I e-mailed John while sitting at my computer." Grammatically, either "I" or "he" could follow "while" and it's certainly possible that John was sitting at my computer, but I think no one would assume so. If I wanted to suggest John was in front of my computer, I think I would have to say so to be clear. I can't think of a single sentence that would be understood the other way, even if the context makes it clear.

"I met the President while visiting New York."
"Wuddya mean, visiting? You live in New York."
"No, HE was visiting."
"Oooohh, why didn't you say so?"

"I met the Pope while hearing confession."
'Wow, you heard the POPE'S confession???"

"I met Roy Rogers while riding Trigger"
"What were you doing on his horse?"

I don't think any of the above sentences can really be understood to be ascribing action to the object, even when the context makes it clear. I can't think of any sentence which does. The more I try, the more stilted the sentences become.

I think maybe the office vote picked "him" only because there's a natural tendency to distance oneself from what may be perceived as a negative activity.

porsche August 1, 2006, 9:08pm

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There is a difference between those example sentences and the original sentence: the addition of 'while'.

'I met him while drunk' is clearly 'I' and not 'he'; 'I met him drunk' is more ambiguous.

"I met Roy Rogers while riding Trigger"
"What were you doing on his horse?"

-> "I met Roy Rogers riding Trigger"
"Oh, you met the horse too!"

'while' indicates 'while the first verb was being carried out' - this connection to the first verb (which the speaker is performing) pushes perception over to the second part being about the speaker, too. A non-'while' phrase any possible connection to the first verb is balanced by proximity to the 'him' part: 'I met...drunk' suggests 'I', while '...him drunk' suggests him.

Rebecca August 4, 2006, 6:00pm

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I was going to agree with you, Rebecca, but consider this. Let's recast any or all of the sentences without the "while". Let's say they're ambiguous (which I already did say). If you reform any of the sentences in an unambiguous fashion, i.e. specifying which version you actually mean, then the "while" must be used.

"I met him drunk" becomes either "I met him while I was drunk" or "I met him while he was drunk".

Thus, I would suggest the the presence or absence of the "while" becomes meaningless and irrelevant; the absence of the "while" becomes simply an elided version of the same sentence with it.

porsche August 5, 2006, 7:11pm

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porsche: In any case, analyzing a phrase which is different from the original phrase is a fundamental error. Your main focus now is on 'while', which isn't even in the phrase in question!

slemmet August 6, 2006, 3:09am

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Oh dear God! The original sentence--to me--made me believe that he was drunk when you met him. I guess it is an ambiguous sentence structure that we should all avoid. ?

Kurt August 9, 2006, 9:57am

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OK Slemmet, My first posting of August 2nd did use "while", in "I met him while drunk", but that was purely a typographical error. I simply meant to type the original phrase in question, "I met him drunk." Similarly, "I e-mailed John while sitting at my computer", while not a typo per se, could just as easily been written as "I e-mailed John sitting at my computer." This applies to the other ambiguous versions of example phrases as well. Consider this as an amendment to that posting. I stand behind everything else I said in that posting with the changes just mentioned.

porsche August 10, 2006, 9:34am

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Well all the conversations strayed way off the target. In effect we are supposed to consider the object and the subject in the sentence. Now considering 'I' as the subject then 'he' is drunk.
One more angle to look at would be of the intonation and stress applied while speaking out the sentence.

kcl_a August 19, 2006, 11:49pm

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I think issues like these really highlight a misconception that many of us share about the English language - that it's a coherent system with rules, and so can be unambiguous if used properly.

Actually English is a mix of many languages, which have merged and affected each other in some very inconvenient ways.

There may even be a rule for the "I met him drunk" problem, but I would suggest that any such rule is probably a consensus held in by some linguistic communities and not others; it's certainly surprising how much grammaical variation can be found within one country, never mind across the Atlantic, etc!

Therefore I think the mention of the word "while" was very relevant; a strength of the English language is that, as many linguistic cracks might appear, there are always various options to fill them with.

To summarise what is perhaps an overly long post, I agree with Kurt: "I met him drunk" is ambiguous, so let's avoid using that particular structure when we want to be clear. When we DON'T want to be clear, nice one to remember!

Fryett August 31, 2006, 2:45am

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I was embarrassed when I encountered President Bush. I met him drunk. (Or "I met'im drunk.")

The ambiguity is worse than what has been proposed.

(1) It was embarrassing to encounter a drunk President.
(2) It was my big chance, but I was drunk when I stumbled upon the President.
(3) George and I were hugging adjacent "chamber pots" in the men's room at the bar. What an embarrassment for us!

I find the original three-ways ambiguous.

The further discussion of "I met him drunk" involves the use of such an utterance. So we must distinguish between the syntactic/semantic analysis of the sentence (or sentence type) which follows syntactic "rules" and its use in a particular situation.

Everyone seems to agree that the sentence is ambiguous; it can be intrepreted to carry various meanings. (My vote is for three.) And whether one reading dominates others is irrelevant since we can imagine a context in which any of the readings can be evoked from the sentence.

Used alone, then, the sentence has little use. It leaves the message unclear. A context will disambiguate the message the speaker or writer of such a sentence is trying to convey. But another possibility is for the speaker/writer to intend an ambiguity as I did in context sentence (2) above. In this sentence "stumbled upon" paraphrases "encountered" while additionally adding the picture of unsteady walking that might infringe upon the President's personal space. If I met with success, you read it both ways. And smiled.

So when Shakespeare writes "I lie with her and she with me" in Sonnet 138, he means for the reader to take "lie with" as both "not telling the truth" and "sharing bliss in the bed." The joy of the sonnet lies in its ambiguity.

buckbingham September 1, 2006, 10:42am

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"I met him drunk" implies the speaker was drunk. The adjective applies to the subject and not the object. End of discussion.

Don Quixote October 10, 2006, 1:57pm

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"I think issues like these really highlight a misconception that many of us share about the English language - that it's a coherent system with rules, and so can be unambiguous if used properly."

English is a consistent system with rules. It's complete madness to claim otherwise. How would we be able to communicate with each other, if our language had no rules?

Whether a certain construction is ambiguous is a separate issue.

John October 11, 2006, 11:52am

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Guys, look (especially you, Don Quixote).

Not only is the sentence, "I met him drunk" ambiguous, but it is grammatically incorrect. The speaker is trying to use the word "drunk" in this sentence as an adverb to describe the verb, "met." However, "drunk" is an adjective and not an adverb. If the speaker is trying to describe the subject (i.e. himself), he could say, "I drunkenly met him," or "I met him while I/he was drunk." Neither of those sentences are ambiguous.

Furthermore, the words "I/he" after the word "while" are NOT optional; if "I/he" are omitted, the listener or reader can not know whether "drunk" is describing the object or the subject of the sentence (despite the belief that most native speakers may understand that the "word" drunk describes the speaker). The interpretation of sentences in that way is based on context and assumption, not grammar.

Bluntly stated, "drunk" is an adjective, not an adverb, and omitting "I/he" after the word "while" is grammatically incorrect and leaves the sentence ambiguous.

John A. October 14, 2006, 2:29pm

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John A,
Yes the sentence is ambiguous, but I find it difficult to believe that it is ungrammatical. "drunk" is not modifying the verb, it is modifying the object "him". Or the subject "I" depending on your interpretation.

Ambiguity and grammaticality are two seperate things.

Who do you want to fight?

This is ambiguous - the subject of "fight" could be interpreted as "you", or it could be interpreted as someone else. Just like "I met him drunk", it is ambiguous, but not ungrammatical.

John October 16, 2006, 5:29am

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Well, I'll be damned, "grammaticality" IS a word!

porsche October 16, 2006, 6:34am

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Don't worry about porsche; I know you meant to say "grammar." Also, I considered what you said and I think you are right. The sentence is ambiguous, and when interpreted my way ("drunk" as an adverb) it is grammatically incorrect and when interpreted your way ("drunk" as an adjective), it is grammatically correct. Consider the original sentence:

"I met him drunk."

I have been trying to argue that this sentence is grammatically incorrect because "drunk" does not fit; the word either needs to be replaced with "while I/he was drunk" or replaced with "drunkenly" and inserted in front of the verb. I am correct in saying that drunk can't be used as an adverb here, but that does not mean that it can't be used as an adjective (which I had originally thought).

Your interpretation is that "drunk" is modifying "him." In other words, with your model, the structure would break down into these categories:

. . . . . . . . . . . . I + met + him + drunk . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . just like

. . . . . . . . . . I + forced + the door + open . . . . . . . . . . . . and similar to

. . . . . . . . . They + elected + him + president

"President," in this case, is called the predicative nominal and "open," the predicative adjective. "I met him drunk" follows the same pattern as "I forced the door open." In this case, your interpretation of the sentence means that "I met him drunk" is grammatically correct.

Keep in mind that, like I said, interpreting "drunk" as an adverb that modifies the verb "met" is incorrrect because, obviously, "drunk" is not an adverb.

In other words, you were right and I was wrong. But I stand by my opinion that "I met him drunk" is a terrible sentence because it is extremely ambigous and can be easily used incorrectly if, for example, I told a story about how I was drunk and I went to meet an old friend of mine.

John A. October 19, 2006, 8:03pm

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Also, I forgot to mention that "drunk" does not modify the subject.

John A. October 19, 2006, 8:06pm

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John A, there's no need to defend John from me. I wasn't attacking him. I really meant what I said. Actually, he did NOT mean to say "grammar". What he said was 100% correct and proper. He certainly could have said "grammar" with similar sentiment, but the literal meaning would have been different. At first, I also jumped to the wrong conclusion that he should have used "grammar" until I researched it further. Actually, "grammaticality" is precisely the correct word, in fact, far better than "grammar" (which is less grammatical). I may have been a little jocular, but I was not being sarcastic.

porsche October 20, 2006, 6:12am

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"grammaticality" is what I meant, as in "the quality of being grammatical". Linguists use this word all the time.

John A, you say that the sentence is ambiguous, but then you state that "drunk" does not modify the subject. If that's the case, then how is this sentence ambiguous?

It's ambiguous because "drunk" can modify either the subject or the object, as many people have pointed out.

John October 20, 2006, 6:47am

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Yes     No