Archive for ambiguity

$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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The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire

Local radio station WFCR on Thursday, October 11 started a report with a sentence that gave me a big double-take:

“The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire in Northampton has filed suit …”

And the next morning, October 12, I saw almost the same words in the local paper, the Hampshire Gazette:

Photo caption:

Alleged arsonist Anthony Baye has been sued by Elaine Yeskie, the widow and mother of the two men killed in a Northampton house fire he allegedly set.

Beginning of story:

The widow and mother of men killed in a house fire in 2009 filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against alleged fire-starter Anthony P. Baye. Elaine Yeskie, 77, is seeking monetary and punitive damages against Baye, …

The version under the photo caption makes the description an appositive phrase, so we already know that it’s a description of one person. But the beginning of the radio story really took me by surprise and made me grab my pen. I feel subjectively sure, though I could of course be wrong, that I could never say that that way. All the ways I could express it take more words; about the shortest acceptable version I can find is “The wife of one and mother of the other of two men killed in a fire …”

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Ambiguity watch: failing families, killing New Yorkers

Here are two items of ambiguity in advertising, one intentional and one not. First the apparently unintentional ambiguity: a new commercial from the Romney presidential campaign entitled "Failing American Families."

As the terse voiceover puts it, “Barack Obama. More spending. More debt. Failing American Families.”

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When its and it's are both correct

"Grammar Fail!" wrote someone on Facebook beside a picture showing the printed words "Milk it for all it's worth." But Fiona Hanington pointed out to Language Log that it's not necessarily a fail. It's the wrong spelling if worth is the noun meaning "value", so the intended meaning was "Milk it for all the worth (= value) that it has." The genitive pronoun its is not spelled with an apostrophe; the right spelling would be Milk it for all its worth. However, there's another meaning, where worth is an adjective: it could be intended to mean "Milk it for all that it is worth." And there the apostrophe would be correct (indeed, required): Milk it for all it's worth. (English is loaded with little gotcha things of this sort, isn't it?) Since both mean roughly the same thing (they put it in different ways, but it's hard to imagine one of the meanings making a true claim where the other didn't), Fiona is right to note that this is one of the very rare cases where it's and its are both correct in the same context with the same meaning. You won't find many of those.

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A sentence more ambiguous than most

On Facebook, Fahrettin Şirin shared this special card for linguists and other lovers of ambiguity:

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Skipping the rat

From the allmusic.com biography of the heavy metal band Celebrity Skin (apparently unrelated to the 1998 Hole album of the same name), a recent addition to the Fellowship of the Predicative Adjunct's collection of epically dangling modifiers:

At one show in particular, ex-Germs/45 Grave drummer Don Bolles went to review the band's live performance for the L.A. Weekly newspaper and gave the band a favorable review. The following week the band went to Bolles' apartment in hopes of persuading him to join the group. When asked to join the band, Bolles' pet rat went into a spastic fit and died. Bolles took this as some sort of strange sign and joined the group cementing his spot as the band's permanent drummer.

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Watching the deceptive

After almost a month, I'm finally following up on the results of the single-question surveys that I asked Language Log readers to participate in. Each survey received an overwhelming 1500+ responses, and I didn't realize that I needed a "pro" (= "paid") account on SurveyMonkey in order to view more than the first 100. I owe special thanks to Mohammad Mehdi Etedali, to whom I transfered the surveys and who kindly sent me the overall percentages.

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"There is no Communist Party, there is no New China"

Kira Simon-Kennedy wrote to me from Beijing that she is chaperoning 30 French high school students on their first trip to China to learn Mandarin.

Yesterday afternoon, the French students were trying to decipher the following banner at a bus stop:  "没有共产党, 没有新中国."  Most of the students have already taken a couple years of lessons, so they could be classed as having reached intermediate level.  They got as far in their interpretation of the sign on the banner as "There is no collective __, there is no new China."  Not bad for intermediate level learners, but the banner remained a mystery to them, if only at the lexical level because they didn't know what 共产党 meant.  However, when Kira told the students that 共产党 meant Communist Party, they were all the more puzzled.  "Are they allowed to say that ('there is no Communist Party')?" one student asked.  "Isn't that really dangerous to deny the existence of the Party in public?"

The students thought that someone had the nerve to buy a public ad to tell the world:  "There is no Communist Party, there is no New China" — superficially that's what the sign on the banner seemed to be saying.  The close grammatical parallelism of the two clauses only made such an interpretation seem all the more certain.

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Does it really matter if it dangles?

In his short but cutting review of Simon Heffer's Strictly English, Steven Poole remarks that the book "condemns hanging participles yet perpetrates a monster (on p165, too tedious to quote here)." What was this tedious monster, I feel sure you Language Log readers are asking? The sentence in question is the second one in this quotation (from the beginning of a section; I underline the relevant phrase):

Partridge has a long entry in Usage and Abusage on the word got – he could as easily have made the entry about the word get – but, if anything, this unusually strict grammarian lets the promiscuous and often thoughtless use of this term off lightly.3 Without detracting from Fowler's point that the Anglo-Saxon is to be preferred to the Romance at all times, the use of the verb to get in an increasing number of contexts is not merely "slovenly" (Partridge's word): it is downright confusing.


3. Usage and Abusage, p136.

Is that really a mistake?

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Free that jar, save those officials… unh?

One of the strangest stories gets one of the strangest headlines in a strange, strange August. The headline is from CBC in Canada, and the story is from the strange state of Florida:

Days from death, Fla. wildlife officials free plastic jar that was stuck on bear cub's head

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty that plastic jar is free at last! Though the news about the Florida wildlife officials being close to death is alarming, of course. You may find you need some explanations. If you don't, my compliments. But read on if you do.

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Sea turtles rescued from Gulf spill released

A most perfect garden path headline. It’s interesting that this one depends on our automatic processing of headlines with their own syntax.

The classic garden path sentence, “The horse raced past the barn fell”, is a full sentence and not a headline, and in that one the garden path is created by our preference for initially interpreting “raced” as a main verb; only when we hit “fell” do we backtrack and reprocess “raced” as a passive participle and “raced past the barn” as a modifier of “horse”.

In the sea turtles headline (Yahoo Science News, July 16, 2010), “rescued” is a passive participle in both the initial and final parsings – we don’t mistakenly interpret “rescued” as a main verb in the past tense, because we are not inclined to think that the sea turtles rescued anything, and the “from” phrase further makes it clear that the turtles were the rescued ones, not the rescuers. So what’s the garden path about?

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Tyson Homosexual back in the headlines

When we last posted about Tyson Gay, he'd been entertainingly cupertinoed. And now, from Reuters on July 3, this:

Tired Gay succumbs to Dix in 200 meters

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An aim or a name?

In a meeting the other day I heard a colleague say something that was either the first of these or the second:

A good test of whether a course is coherent in its content is whether we can give it an aim.
A good test of whether a course is coherent in its content is whether we can give it a name.

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