A sentence more ambiguous than most

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

"I love ambiguity more than most people" is of course ambiguous, since it could mean "I love ambiguity more than most people (love ambiguity)" or "I love ambiguity more than (I love) most people." And in the case of some linguists, both of those propositions may have positive truth values.

(For more on the ambiguity of "comparative ellipsis," see Jean Mark Gawron, "Comparatives, Superlatives, and Resolution," Linguistics and Philosophy 18:333-380, 1995.)

[Late update: this card was evidently designed by Ana Elisa Vianna and originally shared on the Facebook page "Trust Me, I'm a 'Linguist'."]

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32 Comments »

  1. Flink said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

    Like most good jokes, this one was done first by Homestar Runner. I quote Strong Sad's formulation "I like board games more than most people" (followed by a lengthy explanation) a lot.

    http://www.hrwiki.org/wiki/Strong_Sad%27s_Character_Video

  2. The Ridger said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    Sentences like this make me wonder how all the people who complain about "more than me" replacing "more than I" manage to make it through the day. Or don't start a movement to revive noun declensions…

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

    @ Ridger –

    But wouldn't the more than I peevers say that they're perfectly happy to say more than me when me is the object, as in the Ben loves ambiguity more than [he loves] me. They're objecting to people saying Ben loves ambiguity more than me to mean Ben loves ambiguity more than I do – i.e. in what they see as a reduced clause. They wouldn't deny that there's ambiguity, they just claim that in the case of pronouns (so to speak) there oughtn't to be ambiguity.

    Or have I missed your point?

  4. Matt Juge said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 6:34 pm

    For me the ambiguity works far less well in speech, where the two readings are distinguished prosodically.

  5. Rubrick said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    I love most people who love ambiguity more than most people more than most people who don't.

  6. Marc said,

    May 15, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

    You can't have too much ambiguity in your sentences.

  7. A.S. said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 1:21 am

    Someone discussed every ambiguity.

  8. Andy R said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 3:09 am

    It's also ambiguous because "most people" means different things to different people. Most people agree in means "a large majority (like 80% or more). A deviant few think it means "more that 50%".

    Gotta love all those layers of ambiguity in one sentence.

  9. Adam said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 3:35 am

    Brilliant!

    @Marc: you beat me to it. :-)

  10. Grover Jones said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 7:54 am

    I love how you thought you needed to explain the joke to us . . .

  11. D.O. said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 8:25 am

    Who's likeness is on the card?

  12. Roger Lustig said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    @D.O.: Yes, it is.

  13. Jon Nissenbaum said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    It looks like Johannes Brahms.

  14. Adam said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    @Ruger Lustig:

    What's on the back.

  15. Nadezhda said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    A great writer can create ambiguity with comparatives even without "ambiguous grammar":)
    "I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less
    than half of you half as well as you deserve."
    J.R.R.Tolkien "The Fellowship of the Ring"

  16. DavidO said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    Reminds me of the old SNL sketch with Ed Asner, "Remember: you can never put too much water into a nuclear reactor."

  17. mollymooly said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    @Pflaumbaum: I think you have indeed missed The Ridger's point, which I took to be:

    even if Peevers had their way and the "than I"–"than me" distinction was always observed with respect to pronouns,

    this would leave the dreaded ambiguity unresolved when the comparison was with a noun or NP like "most people";

    so the prescribed solution solves only a fraction of the putative problem.

  18. Nelida said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 10:20 am

    @D.O.: Shouldn't it be 'whose' likeness (i/o 'who's')?

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    @ mollymooly -

    Ah I'm with you, thanks.

  20. KevinM said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    @Enlida. Many of the posts have been toying with linguistic ambiguity. You might say I never meta ambiguous post I didn't like.
    I believe D.O. was doing an Abbot & Costello.

  21. KevinM said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    Argh. You can't make too many typos. Please forgive.

  22. Will M said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    DavidO, that's one of my favorites, but I think it was even more ambiguous than that, more like, "you can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor…"

  23. D.O. said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

    It was different phrasing which, after some incomplete editing, morphed into Abott and Costello. And it is Johannes Brahms indeed. WTF.

  24. alex said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    But who's the guy in the picture?

  25. Adrian said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    It's not very ambiguous, is it.

  26. Chandra said,

    May 16, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

    More people love ambiguity than I do.

  27. Sara Kazemi said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 2:56 am

    Oh hey. My pal Ana ( http://www.facebook.com/aninhavianna ) made that card. We're both students at SDSU, where Dr. Gawron teaches. COINCIDENCE? I think…maybe.

  28. Adam said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 3:16 am

    I thought the guy in the picture might be Frege.

  29. Glenn Bingham said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    @Adam

    It's Jo-Fregean'-hannes Brahms!

  30. Army1987 said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    @Andy: I think it means ‘more than 50%’ but implicates ‘all but a few’.

  31. a George said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    @Glenn Bingham & others:
    methinks its that finger-looking git Colonel Sanders. He is a linguist using his tongue to lick.

  32. Chuck said,

    May 22, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    Nonsense!

    Of course the sentence is ambiguous in that it COULD intend to differentiate between the love of 'ambiguity' and the love of 'most people', but we know, from our common understanding of how such sentences are structured, that this type of sentence-ambiquity is hardly ever intentional. Unless this is a part of a legal document the sentence could survive its' unintentionally ambiguous structure.

    Ambiguous? Not really. :-)

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