## Prepositioning

Linguist reads the paper: First sentence in Friedman's column begins "Let’s see, America is prepositioning battle tanks …" and before I got to the battle tanks I was surprised and wondering how 'preposition' could be used as a verb and what it could mean. (I'm of course seeing the word that starts with 'prep', had to be garden-pathed before I backtracked and saw the verb pre-position.)

I won't be surprised if readers of this blog had a similar first parse of my header –  its occurrence in this blog will probably make that even more likely.

## Disastrous ambiguity

Talking of the possibly impending Grexit, what an unfortunate sentence The Economist chose to conclude its leader article on the ongoing Greek monetary crisis:

This marriage is not worth saving at any price.

A quirk of English syntax and semantics makes this radically ambiguous.

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## "Closed minds": open to interpretation?

CNN International recently sent out this tweet, linking to an interview with Stella McCartney:

The headline, which also appears on CNN's website, left some people perplexed. Was Ms. McCartney saying that her parents closed minds, or did they open closed minds?

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## Fatter for longer (sigh)

Here's a doubly embarrassing confession. First it involves my use of a construction that I love to make fun of. Secondly my spontaneously generated example is unfortunately also a true sentence.
I was trying on four dresses that have been stored in the attic for a while to see if I could avoid having to shop for a formal dress in Chicago on Friday for the Friday black tie dinner that precedes the Saturday honorary doctorate. I didn't think I was going to be able to fit into any of them, since I've gained back all the weight I lost around 2008-9 and am now close to an all-time maximum. But to my in some ways happy surprise, I found that I could sort of fit into two of them, including the best one. And my surprise was expressed (just talking silently to myself, but obviously in real sentences, since this sentence immediately caught my attention as soon as I "said" it) as "Gosh, I've been fatter for longer than I thought". (The happy part is I may not have to go shopping on Friday, or at least it won't be obligatory to buy a new dress, which takes off the pressure that accompanies last-minute obligatory shopping.)
I still reject that sentence, even though I said it .

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## Where to keep your pubic hair

The worst choice of preposition-phrase modifier placement anywhere in the world last week was probably the one at the E! online page. The headline read as follows:

### Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book

Women of the world, listen to Language Log: stop keeping locks of your pubic hair pressed between the pages of Diaz's book. This whole craze is the result of a misunderstanding that should have been foreseeable. It is quite the opposite of what Ms. Diaz intended. The only fortunate thing about the incident is that it really does illustrate and underline the importance of syntax.

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## Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

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## No justice, no peace

J.P. Villanueva writes:

I've been seeing the old "No justice, no peace" chant lately after the Zimmerman trial. It seems like people are lamenting that "there is no justice and there is no peace."

When I first heard the chant (during the Rodney King riots), I had understood quite clearly that "No justice, no peace" was a conditional statement… as in, "if you can't guarantee us justice, we will not let you have peace" in other words, it was a call to riot.

I'm sure the chant has a longer history, right? Has it always meant both things? or did I misinterpret back in the 90s?

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## Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by "splitting an infinitive" (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

It wasn't a one-off occurrence. Look at this sentence (issue of June 1, 2013, p. 57):

The main umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, was supposed to do three things: expand its membership, elect a new leader and decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.

What an appalling decision about modifier placement!

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Here are two entertainment news headlines that are difficult to parse without knowing in advance what they're reporting on. First up, from TIME, a headline on a May 31 piece by TV critic James Poniewozik:

Second, from Cinema Blend, a headline on a post earlier today by Mack Rawden:

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## PP attachment is hard

Alex Williams, "Creating Hipsturbia", NYT 2/15/2013:

“When we checked towns out,” Ms. Miziolek recalled, “I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!”

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## Bad news for hunters and bears

J.M. wrote to alert me to a frightening prospect for hunters and bears in Maryland, revealed by the Washington Post's Afternoon Buzz email newsletter:

The new hunting season opens today, with more hunters and more bears allowed to be killed.

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## $1 in the hands of a woman Reader Jacob Baskin wrote with an interesting ambiguity that he was reminded of reading my recent post about "the wife and mother of two men killed in a fire". He writes In the context of third-world development, I recently heard the factoid that "$1 in the hands of a woman is, on average, worth \$10 in the hands of a man" (here, for instance).

Does this mean, "Each dollar that a woman has is worth, to her, what ten dollars would be to a man"? Or, "Each dollar that a woman has would be worth, if it were in the hands of a man, ten dollars"? Clearly the former meaning is intended, but as with that "duck/rabbit" optical illusion, I can make myself see the sentence in either way.

I'm hard pressed to think of other sentences with two possible meanings in direct opposition to each other. I also can't quite figure out what's going on with the sentence to create this ambiguity. Just thought this might be interesting to you.

Yes, it’s interesting! Here are my first thoughts, for what they’re worth. I also easily hear both meanings, (plus a third, I discovered as I wrote this) and I think both (maybe all three) patterns are probably common.

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