Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

In Lucy Ellmann’s sharp comic novel Varying Degrees of Hopelessness there is a minor but interesting ambiguity:

Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle.

The question is, what didn’t scare her (she being the narrator’s mother) – the man or his small feet? I don’t think the book mentioned fear of feet elsewhere, so my first inclination was to assume that that in a man with small feet that didn’t scare her referred to the man.

But then why use a man who in the next clause? If the variation is meaningful, and not motivated by whimsy or euphony, etc., we could reasonably assume the fear refers to the feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In a post on animals and pronouns, I summarised as follows: that can refer to things or people, which refers to things but not normally people, and who refers to people (and sometimes animals, or entities that are humanlike or have an implication of personality).

So a man with small feet which didn’t scare her would definitely imply that the feet didn’t scare her, while a man with small feet who didn’t scare her would connect the lack of fear decisively to the man. But that is ambiguous. How would you read it?

20 Responses to Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan, as a reader, I would use the time antecedent and context of “later” and any previous mention of a man or companion to determine the meaning of “that didn’t scare her.” My conclusion could be wrong, but my reading of the text would make sense to me.

  2. kcvachon says:

    Maybe a reference to the folk belief that foot size, like nose size, indicates the degree of a man’s sexual “endowment?” That was my first thought, but would need to be borne out by how the narrative of the relationship unfolds.

  3. Mar Rojo says:

    On first reading, I thought “feet’.

  4. I’d read it as feet that didn’t scare her. If she were talking about
    the man, it would be a man with small feet who didn’t scare her.

  5. Newton Gage says:

    To be honest, I read that as her having formed an alliance with 3 different men and with an occasional raffle. ;)

  6. I got the impression that it is the man who didn’t scare her, but also that he is perceived as having an object-like quality, a not-quite-personhood, by the protagonist.

  7. “who” could also be ambiguous this way in other contexts: “a man with a young wife who cannot speak English”. There is some psycholinguistic evidence available to suggest that in such cases native speakers prefer the closest possible antecedent (e.g.: “small feet” in the text above), but context can often override this preference.

  8. tocksin says:

    If by implication, in some rude sense, she is referring to his penis size but why would that scare her?

  9. Q. Pheevr says:

    Reading the sentence, I interpreted that didn’t scare her as modifying feet. If it were spoken aloud, I think the two interpretations might be differentiated prosodically, with a bigger prosodic boundary between feet and that in the reading where the relative clause is modifying man.

  10. nissemus says:

    I have a great dislike for referring to people as “that”, so out of sheer bloody-mindendness I interpreted it as meaning the feet.

    I have to admit that on first reading I also got the impression we were being told about three different men!

  11. sesquiotic says:

    I would read it as an intentional ambiguity. A word isn’t much use if it can only mean one thing at a time. :P

  12. Ian Preston says:

    I read the feet as being not scary. What I take from the phrase is that she probably found alliance with large-footed men difficult because large feet did scare her but that the size of this man’s feet negated this as a potential issue.

  13. Stan says:

    Thanks for your replies. They’ve helped confirm my hunch that the lack of fear probably relates to the feet, not the man. (Not grammatically, that is, though it does relate to him by extension.)

  14. Ian Loveless says:

    No ambiguity for me. According to the parallel structure (there’s a Greek name for this rhetorical device which I shall look up later and splice into this comment), if she had meant the man and not his feet, I think she would have said “a man with small feet, a man that didn’t scare her”.

  15. Corinna says:

    It didn’t seem ambiguous to me, either. The small feet didn’t scare her. Maybe her dad had big feet and he stomped around a lot when she was little and scared her. :)

  16. wisewebwoman says:

    Feet. For many reasons, apart from the strictly grammatical of that and who. “Dainty feet” in a man, in the past, was indicative of the feminine and fastidious.


  17. Mar Rojo says:

    But just to show that antecedents can often agree with the nearest noun, but sometimes do not:

    a man with a glass eye that didn’t scare her

    a man with a plaid shirt that didn’t scare her

    a man with a boxer dog that didn’t scare her

    a man with a smart suit that didn’t scare her

    Could it be that when the second noun is “inanimate”, an ambiguous reading becomes a tad ridiculous, or at least stretched?

    ?”a man with a knife she was not afraid of”
    “a man with a dog she was not afraid of”

  18. Stan says:

    ‘Could it be that when the second noun is “inanimate”, an ambiguous reading becomes a tad ridiculous, or at least stretched?’
    Mar Rojo: It depends on the object: cf. “a man with a box of guns that didn’t scare her”.

    Ian, Corinna, and WWW: Thanks for weighing in on this too. Interesting that most people found it far less ambiguous than I did!

  19. Mar Rojo says:

    Stan said: Mar Rojo: It depends on the object: cf. “a man with a box of guns that didn’t scare her”

    That’s what I’m getting at, Stan. Both the knife example and the gun example lend themselves to the ridiculous. It sounds odd to suggest there may be weapons that a person is not afraid of when they are in the possession of another person.

    ?”a man with a gun she was not afraid of, even though she did fear certain guns”

  20. Mar Rojo says:


    ?”a man with an Uzi she was not afraid of”

    “a man with a tiny pistol she was not afraid of”

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