Is there a linguistic term for what is going on here? I read this phrase in a newspaper and it struck me as ungrammatical but at the same time I can see the logic.

It seems from the comments that my original question was not as clear as it might have been, so I will try to expand on it.

If you do something by dubious ethical means, that for me would mean you do it by means which are ethical but also dubious - this is obviously not the intended meaning, hence my double-take.

I think that on my initial reading, "dubious" is modifying "ethical means".

The writer, though, sees to be using "dubious" to modify "ethical", with that compound then modifying "means".

The original sentence is a bit more complicated than that, because "by legal means" can mean "using the apparatus of the legal system" (e.g. war crimes prosecutions) as well as "lawful". I think that's partly why the sentence originally struck me as strange, but perhaps it can be left on one side.

My question then is whether there is a specific linguistic term for the change in the function of "dubious" (or maybe it's "ethical", or maybe it's the syntactic structure) that occurs between:

(1) "dubious ethical means" = "ethical means that are dubious" / "means that are ethical and dubious"

(2) "dubious ethical means" = "means that are dubious from an ethical point of view".

  • No, there is not. This is not a question about linguistics.
    – user6726
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 16:33
  • This question, as it is currently worded, is quite vague and hard for me to parse what you are asking for. Could you be a bit clearer about what the distinction you are trying to make is? Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 22:41
  • FWIW, I'd probably write that as "dubiously ethical means", eliminating any potential ambiguity... not that there's a huge ambiguity in practice, but it's also just what sounds natural to me.
    – LjL
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 15:55
  • The only thing that's questionable here is the legal system and ethics, but that not a concern of language first of all. @LjL I always strugle with long adv* chains. I remember somebody opined (on Ger.SE, asking about style guidelines, giving as example from English) that two -ly adverbs in a row are bad. Indeed it's a rare sight. There already is highly leading the sentence and you would anyway not inflect e.g. dubiously legal system. The distinction is meaningless, in my humble opinion because English is supposed to be analytic. I might post that as a general answer. Please advise
    – vectory
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 16:29
  • @vectory I didn't consider "highly". I'd also have some pushback from myself trying to use "highly dubiously", but I might. I'm really not sure.
    – LjL
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 19:07

1 Answer 1


I'd call this a case of "structural ambiguity" or maybe "different derivations" depending on your theory of morphosyntax.

Your interpretation 1 is a flat structure where "dubious" and "ethical" both modify "means" or "dubious [ethical means]" where "ethical means" is a single structure that is "dubious"

Your 2 is "[dubious ethical] means" where "dubious" is only modifying "means," and that whole phrase is modifying "dubious." Traditional English grammar might state that only adverbs, and not adjectives, can modify adjectives, but there are lots of places where traditional English grammar posits we should find adverbs but find adjectives in normal speech ("I feel good" and not "I feel well"). You could also say, if you think derivation has an order to it, that "dubious ethics" is a phrase, and that entire phrase is derived into an adjective "dubious ethical." I do not find this convincing, because it cannot act that way in other contexts ("the dubious ethical man tied the sheriff to the train tracks" does not really work for "the man with dubious ethics tied the sheriff to the train tracks")

Another interpretation of 2 could say that it is syntactically like 1 but semantically/pragmatically, it is like your interpretation of 2. By Grice's Maxims, a series of rules that explain how there are meanings outside of the simple syntax by implicature, we can say that it is unlikely that one would equally modify "means" by two adjectives with conflicting meanings like "dubious" and "ethical," (or, that if the means are one, the other would be mostly irrelevant to what the speaker is saying) but transferring the semantic scope of "dubious" does give us a meaning that fits better with context.

  • Thanks, that seems to capture my initial reaction very well but using more technical terms/tools that I will now be able to look into.
    – JD2000
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 17:43

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