Archive for ambiguity

Attachment ambiguity of the week

Mark Puleo, "'Monster' earthquake shakes Anchorage, Alaska; Widespread damage reported", Accuweather 12/1/2018:

Gov. Bill Walker has issued a disaster declaration in Alaska in response to Friday’s earthquake, which was approved by President Donald Trump.

It's true that Senator Murkowski disagreed with President Trump on climate change, but approving an earthquake seems like a bit of an over-reaction.

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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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Syntactic ambiguity of the week

Caitlin MacNeil, "Jackson Considers Withdrawing As VA Nominee As New Allegations Surface", TPM 4/26/2018:

Jackson denied the allegation that he crashed a government vehicle while drunk on Wednesday evening and told reporters he would press on in the confirmation process.

 

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Prepositional phrase attachments of the week

By coincidence, today's email brought two contributions of links to remarkable examples of PP-attachment ambiguity.

The first one was the lede from this story — Jason Rosenbaum & Marshal Griffin, "Hawley: Evidence exists to charge Greitens for obtaining charity fundraising list", St. Louis Public Radio, 4/18/2018:

Attorney General Josh Hawley is asking the St. Louis circuit attorney to file criminal charges against Gov. Eric Greitens for allegedly illegally obtaining a fundraising list from a charity he founded for political purposes.

It took me a couple of re-reading to clarify the point that Mr. Greitens obtained the list for political purposes, not that he founded the charity for political purposes.

And in this headline, it's the man who was charged, not the woman he shot: "Man out of jail after 16 months for shooting Nashua woman charged with vicious beating of new girlfriend", NHangle.com 4/16/2018

[h/t John Lawler and Mark Mandel]

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PP attachment of the week

From the Washington Post:

Jan. 30, fine, but Jan. 31? Apology required.

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Struck by a duck-rabbit effect

I was just reading along in the NYT today but had to pause at this sentence:

Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer.

I found myself puzzling over whether "him" was all right there or whether I wanted "himself", and even more puzzled that I was having trouble deciding. I would try out one, then the other, and the sentence kept shape-shifting on me. I didn't "feel" any particular ambiguity, and yet either choice would sound bad to me one second and good the next. Puzzled.

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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.

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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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