Archive for Ambiguity

Scaring off the coronavirus

From John Berenberg — "Coronavirus fears empty streets":

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Was it "people of colour" or "people of talent"?

Jim Waterson, "Channel 4 apologises over subtitle error on viral Boris Johnson clip (Tory anger after tweet claims PM said 'people of colour' instead of 'people of talent')", The Guardian 12/6/2019:

Channel 4 News has apologised after a subtitling error wrongly claimed Boris Johnson had discussed whether "people of colour" should be allowed into the UK, prompting the Conservatives to accuse staff at the channel of being campaigners rather than journalists.

In a clip of the prime minister uploaded to Channel 4's social media accounts, Johnson was captioned as saying: "I'm in favour of having people of colour come to this country but I think we should have it democratically controlled and have it done that way."

In reality, Johnson said he was in favour of having "people of talent" come to the UK, and did not discuss race.

The falsely subtitled clip went viral on Friday, prompting Channel 4 to issue a correction: "Boris Johnson says 'people of talent' not 'people of colour'. Our earlier tweet was a mistake. We misheard and we apologise."

Some people who had shared the clip continued to wrongly insist the prime minister had said the word "colour". This suggested it may be an example of people's hearing being influenced by visual cues – similar to the known phenomenon of the McGurk effect. It also echoes the confusion at the end of last year over whether a voice in a short audio clip was saying the word "laurel" or "yanny".

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Attachment ambiguity of the week

Annie Ropeik, "N.H. Defends Laconia Law Barring Female Nudity In U.S. Supreme Court Appeal", New Hampshire Public Radio 12/6/2019:

New Hampshire has filed a response with the U.S. Supreme Court in the so-called "Free the Nipple" case of three women arrested for going topless at Weirs Beach in 2016.

The high court had asked to hear from the state, which an attorney for the women appealing says shows at least one justice may be interested in the issue.

The women say the Laconia ordinance under which they were convicted is unconstitutional and discriminates based on gender.

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Intentionally ambiguous headline

"The Lost Harvest of Chinese Food Plants in Venezuela", By José González Vargas, Caracas Chronicles (May 11, 2019)

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: "bear arms" (part 1), plus a look at "the people"

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

New URL for COFEA and COEME: https://lawcorpus.byu.edu.

This is the first of what will be three posts on bear arms; it will be devoted to critiquing the Supreme Court's discussion of bear arms in District of Columbia v. Heller. My examination of the corpus data on bear arms will appear in my next two posts. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can read discussions of the data by Dennis Baron ("Corpus Evidence Illuminates the Meaning of Bear Arms," in the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly) and by Josh Blackman & James C. Phillips ("Corpus Linguistics and the Second Amendment," in the Harvard Law Review Blog), both of which reach conclusions consistent with mine. (The piece by Blackman & Phillips is especially noteworthy, given that they are both gun-rights advocates.)

My focus in this post will be on the Supreme Court's conclusion that at the time the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified, bear arms unambiguously meant 'carry weapons, for purposes of being prepared for a confrontation,' without regard to whether the carrying was in connection with military service. What I conclude is that even without taking account of how bear arms was actually used, the court's arguments don't hold up. Assuming for the sake of argument that bear arms could reasonably have been understood to mean what the court said it meant, the court didn't show that it unambiguously meant that.

That's not to say that I think bear arms was ambiguous. As I'll discuss in the next two posts, the corpus evidence points toward the conclusion that bear arms unambiguously conveyed the military meaning that the Supreme Court rejected: "to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight" or "to wage war." But even if the evidence were equivocal, the absence of evidence unambiguously supporting the court's interpretation would still be important.

That's because the court's analysis in Heller depends crucially on its conclusion that bear arms was unambiguous. It was that conclusion that enabled the court to interpret the Second Amendment's operative clause ("the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed") without taking into consideration its prefatory clause ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State"). In the court's view, if the operative clause was unambiguous, the prefatory clause "does not limit or expand [its] scope." So if court was wrong in thinking that the operative clause was unambiguous, it was wrong in refusing to consider whether the prefatory clause affected its meaning. And if the prefatory clause plays a role in interpreting the operative clause, the argument against the court's interpretation is strengthened.

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Another post-modifier attachment ambiguity

From CNN's front page on the web today:

Pelting them with iPhones? Stranding them in Dongle Hell? Better not to know…

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Who's the sponsor?

A few weeks ago I attended the last afternoon of Scale By The Bay 2018 ("So much for Big Data", 11/18/2018), and as a result, this arrived today by email:

We had a blast at Scale by the Bay. We hope you did, too. As a sponsor, the organizer has shared your email with us. If you would like to receive messages from Xxxxxxxxx, please opt-in to our mailing list.

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Guilty gloves

There was some discussion earlier this morning ("Editors without judgment") about editorial culpability for misreadings due to the ambiguity of post-modifier attachment. In that headline (…a space for women without judgment), the problem the problem was a PP modifier (without judgment) that should attach "high", i.e. to an earlier NP (a space … without judgment), and creates an unfortunate misreading if attached "low" (women without judgment). I implicitly blamed this on the inattentive sub-editor who wrote the headline. But really, it's the fault of the English language, for having no good way to indicate where post-modifiers should attach.

Here's an example where the problem goes in the opposite direction — Hannah Ellis-Petersen, "NHS rubber gloves made in Malaysian factories accused of forced labour", Guardian 12/9/2018.

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Editors without judgment

The headline: Sean O'Hagan, "Photographer Hannah Starkey: 'I want to create a space for women without judgment'", The Observer 12/8/2018.

The quotation: "That graduate show set me up," says Starkey. "Suddenly I was in demand and simultaneously I became very aware of the different space that women occupy in the photography world, both as practitioners and subjects. I have been acutely aware of that ever since, the ways in which women are constantly evaluated and judged. My gaze is not directed in that way. A lot of what I do is about creating a different level of engagement with women, a different space for them without that judgment or scrutiny."

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Possessive ambiguity

"Senate Bill 250 limiting free-speech rights in Ohio is unneeded and pernicious", cleveland.com 1222018 [emphasis added]:

A pending Ohio bill […] seeks to turn the state's misdemeanor criminal trespass law into a felony if it involves knowingly entering a "critical infrastructure" site. […]

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio's Gary Daniels told the Judiciary Committee that SB 250 and its related bills across the country "are meant to end and severely limit criticism, exposure of … corporate wrongdoing, or anything that merely inconveniences" the builders or operators of "critical" infrastructure.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: "keep" (part 2)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

In  my last post (longer ago than I care to admit), I offered a very brief introduction to corpus analysis and used corpus data on the word keep as the raw material for a demonstration of corpus analysis in action. One of my reasons for doing that was to talk about the approach to word meaning that I think is appropriate when using corpus linguistics in legal interpretation.

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Seven flavors

Jichang Lulu reports that an eating establishment in London has chosen the name qī wèi 柒味 ("seven flavors").  This comes via Yuan Chan on Twitter:

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"Misunderstand that …", "pessimistic that …"

In late June Lila Gleitman noticed a case of "A is pessimistic that S" meaning that A considers it likely that S will happen/turn out to be the case, and A considers S to be an unwanted outcome. Her example was "I am more pessimistic than I was two weeks ago about the trade war spinning out of control."

We agreed that we would both find it impossible to say "I'm pessimistic that the trade war will spin out of control", but differed on "pessimistic about": in my dialect, but not Lila's, "A is pessimistic about a Republican victory in the fall" is OK, meaning that A fears that the outcome will be the one she doesn't want — that there will be or that there won't be, depending on her point of view.

Lila, by the way, said she could use "pessimistic that" in the case of losing hope in a good outcome: "I am more  pessimistic than I was two weeks ago that the prices of stocks will rise." But I don't think I could use "pessimistic that" there either. (So the original speaker and Lila and I seem to have three different patterns of judgments about "pessimistic that".)

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