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:
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 …”
I’m sure we can all interpret their versions once we get over our surprise. But I’m curious whether anyone thinks that English (or any other language you know) really allows “the wife and mother of two men killed in a fire” to mean what they meant. Has anyone seen other attested examples? And has any linguist ever discussed it, because I can’t see any way to get their intended meaning of the whole phrase from the meanings of its parts. (I’m worrying about what semanticists call ‘the principle of compositionality’: the meaning of a whole is a function of the meanings of the parts and the way they are syntactically put together.)
My own hunch: there’s nothing wrong with the syntax – it’s no different from “A friend and neighbor of the two men killed in the fire” – but the compositional meaning of that one is that the person spoken about is a friend and neighbor of both of the men, not a friend of one and a neighbor of the other. And another well-formed possibility (these types have both been studied) is “An aunt and uncle of the two men killed in the fire”, where now we’re talking about two people, but still one is an aunt of both men and the other is an uncle of both men. I don’t think it can have the meaning of an aunt of one and an uncle of the other. (Or can it? I could be wrong.)
I think they’re using a possible English sentence with a meaning it can’t really have, but getting away with it (perhaps also in their own minds) because we can figure out what they must mean.
I’d love to have a theory of sentence production that could explain how they came up with it, if indeed I’m right that it’s not really a combination of form and meaning that our unconscious grammar really legitimates.