Archive for ambiguity

Where to keep your pubic hair

The worst choice of preposition-phrase modifier placement anywhere in the world last week was probably the one at the E! online page. The headline read as follows:

Cameron Diaz Encourages Women to Keep Their Pubic Hair in Her New Book

Women of the world, listen to Language Log: stop keeping locks of your pubic hair pressed between the pages of Diaz's book. This whole craze is the result of a misunderstanding that should have been foreseeable. It is quite the opposite of what Ms. Diaz intended. The only fortunate thing about the incident is that it really does illustrate and underline the importance of syntax.

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Ambiguous Mandarin sentences

Ambiguity exists in all languages, especially if an author is not careful to forestall it.  On the other hand, writers and poets sometimes intentionally court it for literary effect, in which case there are at least Seven Types of Ambiguity.

Two literary attributes that are perhaps more salient in Mandarin than in many other languages are ambiguity and rhyme, the former because Chinese words are not strongly marked grammatically (e.g., hóng 紅 ["red"] can be an adjective, noun, or verb [dōngfāng hóng 東方紅 {"the east IS RED"}]) and the latter because of the huge number of homophones in the language.

Currently, a set of seven sentences has been circulating on the internet.  They are preceded by a notation which states that a high level test for foreign students of Chinese in 2013 included the following sentences, each of which the students had to explain in two different ways.  Before listing and translating the sentences, I should mention that it is not immediately obvious that each of the sentences can be interpreted in two different ways.  To a certain degree, I would compare the effect of reading these sentences to that of looking at optical illusions; sometimes you have to look a very long time before you can see both versions of the illustration, and sometimes you never see more than one version, no matter how hard you look.

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No justice, no peace

J.P. Villanueva writes:

I've been seeing the old "No justice, no peace" chant lately after the Zimmerman trial. It seems like people are lamenting that "there is no justice and there is no peace."

When I first heard the chant (during the Rodney King riots), I had understood quite clearly that "No justice, no peace" was a conditional statement… as in, "if you can't guarantee us justice, we will not let you have peace" in other words, it was a call to riot.

I'm sure the chant has a longer history, right? Has it always meant both things? or did I misinterpret back in the 90s?

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Economist still chicken: botches sentence rather than split infinitive

I have commented elsewhere on the fact that writers in The Economist are required to write unnatural or even ungrammatical sentences rather than risk the wrath of the semi-educated public by "splitting an infinitive" (putting a preverbal modifier immediately before the verb in a to-infinitival complement clause). The magazine published a sentence containing the phrase publicly to label itself a foreign agent where clarity demanded to publicly label itself a foreign agent.

It wasn't a one-off occurrence. Look at this sentence (issue of June 1, 2013, p. 57):

The main umbrella organisation, the Syrian National Coalition, was supposed to do three things: expand its membership, elect a new leader and decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.

What an appalling decision about modifier placement!

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Parsing entertainment headlines

Here are two entertainment news headlines that are difficult to parse without knowing in advance what they're reporting on. First up, from TIME, a headline on a May 31 piece by TV critic James Poniewozik:

Fox's Megyn Kelly Alpha-Dogs Working-Mom Critic Erick Erickson

Second, from Cinema Blend, a headline on a post earlier today by Mack Rawden:

After Earth Lost To Both Fast & Furious And Now You See Me At Friday Box Office

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Attachment ambiguity in "Frazz"

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PP attachment is hard

Alex Williams, "Creating Hipsturbia", NYT 2/15/2013:

“When we checked towns out,” Ms. Miziolek recalled, “I saw some moms out in Hastings with their kids with tattoos. A little glimmer of Williamsburg!”

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Bad news for hunters and bears

J.M. wrote to alert me to a frightening prospect for hunters and bears in Maryland, revealed by the Washington Post's Afternoon Buzz email newsletter:

The new hunting season opens today, with more hunters and more bears allowed to be killed.

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$1 in the hands of a woman

Reader Jacob Baskin wrote with an interesting ambiguity that he was reminded of reading my recent post about "the wife and mother of two men killed in a fire". He writes

In the context of third-world development, I recently heard the factoid that "$1 in the hands of a woman is, on average, worth $10 in the hands of a man" (here, for instance).

Does this mean, "Each dollar that a woman has is worth, to her, what ten dollars would be to a man"? Or, "Each dollar that a woman has would be worth, if it were in the hands of a man, ten dollars"? Clearly the former meaning is intended, but as with that "duck/rabbit" optical illusion, I can make myself see the sentence in either way.

I'm hard pressed to think of other sentences with two possible meanings in direct opposition to each other. I also can't quite figure out what's going on with the sentence to create this ambiguity. Just thought this might be interesting to you.

Yes, it’s interesting! Here are my first thoughts, for what they’re worth. I also easily hear both meanings, (plus a third, I discovered as I wrote this) and I think both (maybe all three) patterns are probably common.

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The wife and mother of two men killed in a fire

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:

Photo caption:

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 …”

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Ambiguity watch: failing families, killing New Yorkers

Here are two items of ambiguity in advertising, one intentional and one not. First the apparently unintentional ambiguity: a new commercial from the Romney presidential campaign entitled "Failing American Families."

As the terse voiceover puts it, “Barack Obama. More spending. More debt. Failing American Families.”

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When its and it's are both correct

"Grammar Fail!" wrote someone on Facebook beside a picture showing the printed words "Milk it for all it's worth." But Fiona Hanington pointed out to Language Log that it's not necessarily a fail. It's the wrong spelling if worth is the noun meaning "value", so the intended meaning was "Milk it for all the worth (= value) that it has." The genitive pronoun its is not spelled with an apostrophe; the right spelling would be Milk it for all its worth. However, there's another meaning, where worth is an adjective: it could be intended to mean "Milk it for all that it is worth." And there the apostrophe would be correct (indeed, required): Milk it for all it's worth. (English is loaded with little gotcha things of this sort, isn't it?) Since both mean roughly the same thing (they put it in different ways, but it's hard to imagine one of the meanings making a true claim where the other didn't), Fiona is right to note that this is one of the very rare cases where it's and its are both correct in the same context with the same meaning. You won't find many of those.

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A sentence more ambiguous than most

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

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