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彼女は私に嘘をついていたと白状した。
She confessed to me that she had told a lie (given translation)

This sentence seems ambiguous to me. It isn't clear whether she told a lie to me or to someone else. But it seems heavily weighted towards the fact that she told the lie to me due to the position of 私に, i.e. 彼女は(私に嘘をついていた)と白状した rather than 彼女は私に(嘘をついていた)と白状した. Is my thinking correct?

Is it permissible to move the position of 私に to alleviate the ambiguity i.e.

彼女は嘘をついていたと私に白状した。

Is this grammatical/natural? I'm not sure how much stuff is allowed between と and the following verb. I think this sentence is still ambiguous but sounds less like she told the lie to me and more like she told me that she lied to someone else.

Is any of the above correct, or am I just rambling?

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In terms of syntax, your understanding is correct. But practically both sentences, presented by themselves, sound simply she confessed to me that she had told me a lie. Some particular contexts would be required for them to sound really ambiguous (multiple people she can lie/confess to).

===

The second sentence is as natural sounding as the first.

As you write, the first sentence is ambiguous (semantic ambiguity in theory, same for what follows).

  1. 彼女は(私に嘘をついていた)と白状した. (To whom she confessed?)
  2. 彼女は私に(嘘をついていた)と白状した. (To whom she told a lie?)

and, you are also right about it being more likely the sentence will be understood as 1.

There is even a possibility of the omitted subject.

  1. Xが彼女は(私に嘘をついていた)と白状した.
  2. Xが彼女は私に(嘘をついていた)と白状した.

where X is someone understood by the context.

Your second 彼女は嘘をついていたと私に白状した is equivalent to 2 or 4 above.

Also possible is moving 彼女は: 私に嘘をついていたと彼女は白状した(1) or 嘘をついていたと彼女は私に白状した(2) or 噓をついていたと私に彼女は白状した(2). These are equally ambiguous semantically, but again need some contexts to give real ambiguity. (Note: not that all three variants are equally natural, but they are all grammatical and acceptable.)

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  • What to do you mean by "syntactically ambiguous"?
    – Mauro
    Aug 29 at 8:11
  • 1
    @Mauro I mean the sentence has more than one parse tree.
    – sundowner
    Aug 29 at 8:39
  • 1
    Actually I was missing the possibility of someone else's confessing. I edited accordingly.
    – sundowner
    Aug 29 at 8:39
  • Can a sentence be sintatically ambiguous, but not semantically? For context, I'm trying to understand your "is both syntactically and semantically ambiguous": I understand "semantically ambiguous" means an ambiguous meaning and now that "syntactically ambiguous" means more parsing trees, but I'm not sure if "syntactically ambiguous" implies "semantically ambiguous": did you listed both for clarity, or because a sentence can be syntactically, but not semantically, ambiguous?
    – Mauro
    Aug 29 at 8:53
  • 1
    @Mauro At first, I was thinking the OP's 2nd sentence has a unique parsing with 彼女は as the subject, still ambiguity on who was told a lie. But in the end, there are multiple parse trees for both sentences, so the 'syntactically and semantically ambiguous' is redundant and perhaps confusing. Generally syntactic ambiguity should imply semantic one (in most languages), but not absolutely sure.
    – sundowner
    Aug 29 at 9:13

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