Anyone following the national news in the US yesterday — and perhaps many of you following international news elsewhere — has undoubtedly heard about the tragic crash of an F/A-18D fighter jet in San Diego yesterday morning. (The pilot managed to eject safely, but the plane crashed into a house, killing "[a] mother, her young child and the child's grandmother".) The fighter was on a training mission over the Pacific Ocean, and according to reports had already lost an engine over the ocean. Nevertheless, the pilot was apparently instructed to fly the jet to the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, which requires flying over residential and business areas just south of UC San Diego (where my basement office in Language Log Plaza is located). This is where the plane crashed.
Wait, this is Language Log — what's this post about? Well, it turns out that this unspeakable tragedy has a couple of linguistic twists. First and foremost, two UC San Diego linguistics graduate students live a stone's throw away from where the plane hit; fortunately, both students (and their home) are safe and sound. Second, one of those students (hat-tip, Cindy) noted an early news report with the following structurally-ambiguous sentence:
The pilot of the plane, believed to be an F-18, reportedly ejected safely and parachuted to the ground.
Of course, the intended, sensical reading is for the verb phrase believed to be an F-18 to modify the noun plane, like so:
But plane is embedded inside a prepositional phrase that itself modifies the noun pilot, and for reasons I won't go into here — go nuts, syntactically-oriented commenters — (many) English speakers are (often) initially tempted to have the verb phrase modify that 'higher' noun, even though the result is non-sensical:
So, as Cindy put it (in her message letting us all know that she and Rebecca were safe), this wording "make[s] it seem like the pilot is an F-18".