Archive for Ambiguity

"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I’m pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila’s, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn’t want — that there will be or that there won’t be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use “pessimistic that” in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: “I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise.” But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

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Citizenship and syntax (updated, and updated again)

Last week the Washington Post published an op-ed by Michael Anton arguing that the United States should do away with birthright citizenship—the principle that anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are foreign-born noncitizens. The op-ed has attracted a lot of attention from people on both the left and the right, and by “attention” I mean “condemnation”. (E.g., Garrett Epps at The Atlantic, Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, Dan Drezner at the Washington Post, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, Alex Nowraseth at The American Conservative, and Jonathan Adler at Volokh Conspiracy. See also this Vox explainer.)

The criticism both on on Anton’s nativism, but also on his interpretation of the 14th Amendment, on which birthright citizenship is based. One of the interpretive moves for which Anton has been criticized is his handling of a statement made on the floor of the Senate while the proposed text of the 14th Amendment was being debated. And that dispute turns on the resolution of a syntactic ambiguity.

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The importance of proper parsing and punctuation

Currently circulating on Facebook and on Chinese social media are seemingly impenetrable sentences with the same character repeated numerous times.  When you first look at them, your eyes glaze over and you can't make any sense of them.  But if you slow down and think about such sentences, you usually can figure them out without too much effort.  In fact,  I could read some of the following right off upon first encounter.  Others required more effort before I was able to crack them.

Although it looks formidable, of the six sample sentences treated in this post, this one was easiest for me.  I could understand it at one go.  [N.B.:  In my treatment of these sentences, I first give the Pinyin with spaces between each syllable, then repeat the Pinyin with requisite parsing and punctuation.]

1.

míng míng míng míng míng bái bái bái xǐ huān tā dàn tā jiù shì bù shuō

明明明明明白白白喜欢他但他就是不说

Míngmíng míngmíng míngbái Báibái xǐhuān tā, dàn tā jiùshì bù shuō.

"Mingming clearly knew that Baibai liked her, but he just wouldn't say it."

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