James Dreier wrote:
Your posting [about and ambiguity] made me remember that I had a question, also involving ambiguity, though I think this one is quite a bit harder. "Who was the first president born in the twentieth century?"
JFK was born 5/29/1917
LBJ was born 8/27/1908
Thus JFK was president first, but LBJ was born first.
The sentence is, of course, a trivia question — it appeared in GAMES magazine. A reader wrote in to complain that the magazine had given the wrong answer (they said it was JFK). My view is that the question is genuinely ambiguous, but I don't know how to argue for this conclusion.
In framing an argument that a certain phrase is "genuinely ambiguous", I'd start by looking for similar real-world examples such that in context, some of them are clearly (meant to be) interpreted in one of the two ways under discussion, while the others are clearly (meant to be) interpreted in the other way. This isn't a foolproof argument — some of the writers and readers might simply be confused — but it seems to me to be a necessary if not sufficient condition for "genuine ambiguity".
We don't have to look far for examples where the temporal priority of "the first X born <in circumstances Y>" is interpreted with respect to the date of birth. Web search turns up "the first child born in Antarctica", "the first baby born after being conceived with a frozen donor egg", "the first Anglo child born in Texas", "the first aye aye born in captivity", "the first foal born on Robert Bonner's Tarrytown farm", etc.
Even if the constraining circumstances are temporal or spatio-temporal, as in "the first baby born in 2009 at Northside Hospital", it's still purely the time of birth that matters. But in all these cases, "the first X" is an X from the moment of birth — a baby, a foal, an aye aye or whatever — and so there's no competition from a salient event time associated with ascension to X-hood. This is not true when X is an optional status acquired later in life.
Thus Gregorio Álvarez, "the first doctor born in Patagonia", was born in 1889 and received his medical degree in 1919. And thus it could be the date of the medical degree rather than of the birth that is being calibrated — and indeed that's how I (think I) interpret this phrase (not that I have any information about the alternatives).
But here's one where we can tell: Wikipedia says that Frank Lockhart was "the first [Indianapolis 500] winner born in the 20th century" — he was born in 1903 and won in 1926, at the age of 23. And in this case, we know (because Wikipedia also tells us) that Ray Keech, who won in 1929, was born May 1, 1900. So it's clear that the writer meant that among the winners, Lockhart was the first one with the property of having been born in the 20th century.
In these last two cases of "the first X VERBed ADVERBIAL" — the first doctor born in Patagonia and the first Indy winner born in the 20th century – it's the date of X-hood that matters, not the date of the VERB-ing. That agrees with the judgment of Games magazine about "the first president born in the 20th century" being JFK.
But it's not always true that a phrase of the form "the first OPTIONAL-STATUS-NOUN VERBed ADVERBIAL" associates temporal priority with the date of the OPTIONAL-STATUS rather than the date of the VERBing. When Physics Today told us that Steven Chu would be "the first Nobel Prize winner appointed to the US cabinet", it's the 2009 date of his cabinet appointment that mattered, not the 1997 date of his physics prize. If he were to be replaced as energy secretary in 2010 by Douglas Osheroff, who won the physics prize in 1996, Chu would nevertheless still be "the first Nobel prize winner appointed to the U.S. cabinet".
Perhaps the key thing is which event is most salient in the context. Is it becoming a doctor, a president, a prize or race winner? Or is it being born, being appointed to the cabinet, etc.? Or perhaps it also matters which of the two evoked events is later in time. I'm not sure.
In any case, this little exercise convinces me that phrases of this general type are in principle "genuinely ambiguous", although I feel that the original trivia question strongly biases the judgment in the direction of the date of becoming president.
I'll close with a trivia question from the history of philosophy.
Variants of the phrase "The first dog born at sea" are often used in discussions of sense and reference, and especially with respect to definite descriptions. I recall Hilary Putnam using this phrase in a lecture 40 years ago (about why the verification theory of truth won't work, if memory serves). And a quick search on Google Scholar turns up e.g. Zoltán Gendler Szabó "Descriptions and uniqueness", Philosophical Studies 101: 29-57, 2000.
Clear uniqueness implications [of definite descriptions] occur in two sorts of cases: first, when we use expressions like ‘the first dog born at sea in this century’ or ‘the present king of France’, where the common noun phrase without the definite article already guarantees or strongly suggests uniqueness; second, when we emphasize the definite article, as in ‘I found the solution to your problem’ and ‘The painter of the century has an exhibition in the Met’.
Or again in Stephen Schiffer, "Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions", Mind 114, 2005
Let us say that the proposition e-expressed by (9) is the proposition that would be expressed by an utterance of ‘The F is G’ when ‘the F’ occurs as a ‘complete’ description, such as ‘the first dog born at sea’. Then the explicit theory holds that for any utterance of ‘The F is G’ there is some (possibly very complex) predicate H such that the proposition expressed by an utterance of ‘The F is G’ is the proposition e-expressed by
(10) [thex: Hx ∧ Fx] x is G
(in the limiting case, when ‘the F’ is uttered as a complete description, H is the null predicate).
However, there are no dogs in Russell's "On Denoting", Mind 14: 479-493, 1905. So who invented this example, and when (and where) was it first used in print? The first commenter to give the answer will win a free lifetime subscription to Language Log.