Ask Language Log: "The first" ambiguity

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James Dreier wrote:

Your posting [about and ambiguity] made me remember that I had a question, also involving ambiguity, though I think this one is quite a bit harder.  "Who was the first president born in the twentieth century?"

JFK was born 5/29/1917
LBJ was born 8/27/1908

Thus JFK was president first, but LBJ was born first.

The sentence is, of course, a trivia question — it appeared in GAMES magazine. A reader wrote in to complain that the magazine had given the wrong answer (they said it was JFK). My view is that the question is genuinely ambiguous, but I don't know how to argue for this conclusion.

In framing an argument that a certain phrase is "genuinely ambiguous", I'd start by looking for similar real-world examples such that in context, some of them are clearly (meant to be) interpreted in one of the two ways under discussion, while the others are clearly (meant to be) interpreted in the other way.  This isn't a foolproof argument — some of the writers and readers might simply be confused — but it seems to me to be a necessary if not sufficient condition for "genuine ambiguity".

We don't have to look far for examples where the temporal priority of "the first X born <in circumstances Y>" is interpreted with respect to the date of birth. Web search turns up "the first child born in Antarctica", "the first baby born after being conceived with a frozen donor egg", "the first Anglo child born in Texas", "the first aye aye born in captivity", "the first foal born on Robert Bonner's Tarrytown farm", etc.

Even if the constraining circumstances are temporal or spatio-temporal, as in "the first baby born in 2009 at Northside Hospital", it's still purely the time of birth that matters. But in all these cases, "the first X" is an X from the moment of birth — a baby, a foal, an aye aye or whatever — and so there's no competition from a salient event time associated with ascension to X-hood. This is not true when X is an optional status acquired later in life.

Thus Gregorio Álvarez, "the first doctor born in Patagonia", was born in 1889 and received his medical degree in 1919. And thus it could be the date of the medical degree rather than of the birth that is being calibrated — and indeed that's how I (think I) interpret this phrase (not that I have any information about the alternatives).

But here's one where we can tell: Wikipedia says that Frank Lockhart was "the first [Indianapolis 500] winner born in the 20th century" — he was born in 1903 and won in 1926, at the age of 23. And  in this case, we know (because Wikipedia also tells us) that Ray Keech, who won in 1929, was born May 1, 1900.  So it's clear that the writer meant that among the winners, Lockhart was the first one with the property of having been born in the 20th century.

In these last two cases of "the first X VERBed ADVERBIAL" — the first doctor born in Patagonia and the first Indy winner born in the 20th century —  it's the date of  X-hood that matters, not the date of the VERB-ing. That agrees with the judgment of Games magazine about "the first president born in the 20th century" being JFK.

But it's not always true that a phrase of the form "the first OPTIONAL-STATUS-NOUN VERBed ADVERBIAL" associates temporal priority with the date of the OPTIONAL-STATUS rather than the date of the VERBing.   When Physics Today told us that Steven Chu would be "the first Nobel Prize winner appointed to the US cabinet", it's the 2009  date of his cabinet appointment that mattered, not the 1997 date of his physics prize.  If  he were to be replaced as energy secretary in 2010 by Douglas Osheroff, who won the physics prize in 1996, Chu would nevertheless still be "the first Nobel prize winner appointed to the U.S. cabinet".

Perhaps the key thing is which event is most salient in the context. Is it becoming a doctor, a president, a prize or race winner?  Or is it being born, being appointed to the cabinet, etc.? Or perhaps it also matters which of the two evoked events is later in time. I'm not sure.

In any case, this little exercise convinces me that phrases of this general type are in principle "genuinely ambiguous", although I feel that the original trivia question strongly biases the judgment in the direction of the date of becoming president.

I'll close with a trivia question from the history of philosophy.

Variants of the phrase "The first dog born at sea" are often used in discussions of sense and reference, and especially with respect to definite descriptions. I recall Hilary Putnam using this phrase in a lecture 40 years ago (about why the verification theory of truth won't work, if memory serves). And a quick search on Google Scholar turns up e.g. Zoltán Gendler Szabó "Descriptions and uniqueness", Philosophical Studies 101: 29-57, 2000.

Clear uniqueness implications [of definite descriptions] occur in two sorts of cases: first, when we use expressions like ‘the first dog born at sea in this century’ or ‘the present king of France’, where the common noun phrase without the definite article already guarantees or strongly suggests uniqueness; second, when we emphasize the definite article, as in ‘I found the solution to your problem’ and ‘The painter of the century has an exhibition in the Met’.

Or again in Stephen Schiffer, "Russell's Theory of Definite Descriptions", Mind 114, 2005

Let us say that the proposition e-expressed by (9) is the proposition that would be expressed by an utterance of ‘The F is G’ when ‘the F’ occurs as a ‘complete’ description, such as ‘the first dog born at sea’. Then the explicit theory holds that for any utterance of ‘The F is G’ there is some (possibly very complex) predicate H such that the proposition expressed by an utterance of ‘The F is G’ is the proposition e-expressed by

(10) [thex: Hx ∧ Fx] x is G

(in the limiting case, when ‘the F’ is uttered as a complete description, H is the null predicate).

However, there are no dogs in Russell's "On Denoting", Mind 14: 479-493, 1905.  So who invented this example, and when (and where) was it first used in print? The first commenter to give the answer will win a free lifetime subscription to Language Log.


  1. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    And in this case, we know (because Wikipedia also tells us) that Ray Keech, who won in 1929, was born May 1, 1900.

    This example wouldn't work for those annoying types who insist that the 20th century didn't begin until January 1, 1901.

  2. krum said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    I would call annoying those who insist it began on January 1, 1900. Explain why it would have begun then and not on January 1, 1901?

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    krum: Explain why it would have begun then and not on January 1, 1901?

    No, please don't.

    Instead, substitute the case of Louis Schneider, who was born December 19, 1901, and won the Indianapolis 500 in 1931.

  4. Ian Preston said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:25 am

    The "first dog born at sea" as well as "the first dog to be born in England in the nineteenth century", "the only dog to be born at sea which saved a monarch's life" and various other dogs appear in Strawson's 1959 "Individuals: an essay in descriptive metaphysics". There are no dogs in his earlier paper "On Referring". I am guessing the 1959 book is the source.

  5. language hat said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    I cannot make myself see this question as ambiguous, and JFK is clearly the correct answer. To skew it to LBJ, you'd have to ask "Who was the president born earliest in the twentieth century?"

    [(myl) I agree with your judgment, but I'm not sure why, since analogous examples like "the first Nobel prize winner appointed to the U.S. cabinet" go the other way. The hypotheses suggested in the post are that it's the contextual salience of the events, or perhaps their relative order; but I have no real evidence for either idea. ]

  6. Love Encounter Flow said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    my guess is that this class of questions stands a good chance of being cancelled by an umpire upon complaint in a game. a complaining taker could argue that the phrase "Who was the first president born in the twentieth century?" should be interpreted as "who is the first person to (A) be born in the 20th c AND to (B) become president of the USofA".

    obviously, there is a strong tendency to make (B) the decisive criterion; this is also shown by the original sentence which has "the first president" in initial position (not "become president" in final position). however, if a complainant were rejected on the grounds that "word order made the case clear enough", then that would open the game for all kinds of nifty and sophisticated trickster questions—of the kind that 8 year olds pester their 6-year old brothers with.

    we can further have a look into the future: the question "Who was the first president to win the Indianapolis 500?" may be meaningful in 2012. now imagine obama, while in office, wins in 2010, and clinton in 2011. this is tricky, right? somehow obama, since he was actually in office at the time, is the correct answer, but in retrospect, clinton may be considered the one to have "done it" first—in a list of presidents (by inauguration date) and their achievements, clinton will be mentioned before obama as a car race winner, but in the Indy 500 Annals, obama will be appear in the space for 2010, before clinton.

    which makes it clear that in such cases, the question can only be unambiguously answered if the question itself is framed in a reasonably unequivocal way. it’s a little like the question about the barber who shaves all the guys except those who shave themselves—finding the right answer is tricky because the question itself is worded in a logically or circumstantially contradictory way.

    btw i was all for the new millennium to start on january 1st, 2000, and partied that way. a year later, however, i woke up to see my digital watch showed a date of "01.01.01" whereupon i changed my mind (the night before it had been agreed that that was the "first new year’s eve IN the new century", and worthwhile partying that way). since opinions about the "correct" date might well be strewn in a 50/50 fashion, i can imagine a referee to cancel a question that hinges on 1900 being reckoned as either 19th or 20th century.

  7. Dan T. said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    The Wikipedia article says "The twentieth century of the Common Era began on January 1, 1901 and ended on December 31, 2000, according to the Gregorian calendar."

    As for the "which came first" questions, perhaps the relevant time to be compared is the time at which all the conditions of the question were satisfied for each particular individual. Thus, the questions about Nobel prize winners who were cabinet appointees would be satisfied for a person once they had achieved both things, but perhaps person A got a Nobel prize first and later a cabinet appointment, while person B got a cabinet appointment first and later a Nobel prize. To determine who was "first", you'd compare the dates on which each of them completed their "bingo card" of achievements.

  8. Neal Goldfarb said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    I find it difficult if not impossible to interpret the sentence in the "first born" reading.

    My initial thought is that the difficulty with that reading is that it requires that first be interpreted as an adverb rather than an adjective. This becomes clear if you try to rewrite the sentence in a way that would allow this interpretation but not the other one: Of the presidents born in the twentieth century, who was born first?" It's not easy to come up with a phrase structure for actual sentence that would yield this interpretation.

    The only thing I can think of would be a structure in which in the twentieth century is interpreted as a sentence modifier rather than a verb-phrase modifier:

    (1) [[Who was the first president born][in the twentieth century]]

    This structure would presumably be semantically equivalent to this one:

    (2) [[In the twentieth century,][who was the first president born]]

    The "first-born" interpretation is easier for (2) than for (1) because (2) doesn't present the syntactic ambiguity that's inherent in the word order in (1). But even so, (2) is pretty weird, and note that first still functions as an adjective. So I suspect that the interpretation of (2) is driven at least as much by brute-force pragmatics as by a purely compositional process. I.e., the compositional semantics of the sentence don't generate a meaning that completely makes sense, so there's no choice but to inferentially come up with an interpretation that does make sense.

    In the case of the actual sentence, however, there's no need for this kind of inferential heavy lifting, because the VP-modifier interpretation (i.e., "first elected") is available and indeed is probably preferred under general notions of parsing preferences (cf. Late Closure). So it seems surprising that someone would interpret the sentence as having the "first born" meaning.

  9. Barbara Partee said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    I think Love Encounter Flow has hit on an analysis that actually makes them unambiguous, and which fits all of Mark's examples, if I haven't missed something. He/she considers the possibility that "the phrase "Who was the first president born in the twentieth century?" should be interpreted as "who is the first person to (A) be born in the 20th c AND to (B) become president of the USofA".
    Mark already noted that in all the cases where we count who was born first, the other predicate ("a baby, a foal, an aye aye or whatever") is true of all the contenders from the moment of birth — so the first one born will be the first one to satisfy both. And in all of Mark's other cases where we can tell, or where we have strong intuitions, it's also the first one to satisfy both that wins.
    If that's so, it's an interesting case of "seeming ambiguous" when actually maybe it isn't. Language Hat doesn't feel an ambiguity — he may well be right.
    Oh, and I just noticed that Dan T. has the same hypothesis. (Love Encounter Flow didn't necessarily advocate it, just put it up as something someone might claim. Dan T. is tentatively advocating it, as am I.)
    So are there any arguments left for ambiguity of this example? (What I haven't done, because I'm supposed to be working on tomorrow's class instead of enjoying Language Log, is try to draw a tree or a semantic analysis to see if I think I can see anywhere that an ambiguity might come from.)

    [(myl) This accounts for all the facts in a simple way, as far as I can tell. It also works (I think) for things like "the last U.S. president born in the 19th century", or "the last Nobel prize winner to pass away".]

  10. D. Sky Onosson said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    To me, it seems to boil down to whether or not you interpret "first president" as the achievement of becoming president, or simply a description of the person, as "a president".

    Love Encounter Flow's post about presidential race car drivers really made me see this – I find it hard to interpret "first president" in "Who was the first president to win the Indianapolis 500?" as an achievement, rather than just a description. But, for some reason the question in the OP doesn't seem as cut and dried, and the ambiguity remains (at least for me).

  11. comwave said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Re: who invented this example, and when (and where) was it first used in print?

    (1) Sir Peter Frederick Strawson
    (2) Individuals; An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959, Routledge) p. 26

  12. Brett said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    I find that my reading of these questions almost always boils down to this: Who, from some pre-existing group Y, was the first person to X? This doesn't depend very much on the wording of the question. Of all the Americans born in the twentieth century, Kennedy was the first to become president. Chu was the first person who had already won a Nobel prize to be nominated to be a cabinet secretary. If Obama wins the Indy 500 before Clinton, he will be the first president to do that. It is who has priority in the later event (election rather than birth), that generally seems to be "first." This would lead to the same conclusions in almost all cases as Dan T's analysis, but the reasoning is slightly different.

  13. D. Sky Onosson said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    Follow-up: I suspect that the ambiguity has a lot more to do with the word "president" than the word "first". Presidents are a lot rarer than foals or even doctors, and so the achievement of "becoming president" is a lot more salient, than it might be for other terms.

  14. Neal Goldfarb said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    @D. Sky Onnosson:

    To me, it seems to boil down to whether or not you interpret "first president" as the achievement of becoming president, or simply a description of the person, as "a president".

    Several people have come up with some variant of this point. Would it make sense to say that president is a stage-level predicate whereas baby or person is an individual-level predicate, and that this accounts for the difference between first baby born in the 20th century and first president born in the 20th century? Or perhaps that president is a stage-level predicate when used as the subject of born?

  15. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    Consider the related sentence

    "Who was the first president born in 1946?"

    My immediate reaction was that this has only one interpretation, but now that I've thought about it, I'm not quite so sure.

    (The facts: Clinton was born in August 1946. G. W. Bush, who became president later, was born earlier that same year, in July.)

    [(myl) I agree (with the "not quite so sure" part). An interesting example. ]

  16. D. Sky Onosson said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    @ Neal Goldfarb

    Maybe it's just an ambiguous-level predicate, whether used with born or not? Is that possible? (Serious question, this is not my area of expertise).

  17. J.J. E. said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    My personal parser doesn't seem to have much ambiguity.

    Questions of the form:

    "What was the first condition A to meet condition B?"

    seem always to point to the earliest point that the two conditions were met. I tend to answer, "Chu" not "Osheroff", "Clinton" not "Bush", and "JFK" not "LBJ". I do see the ambiguity, but it is only after additional thought provoked by reading this very post.

    I seem to come to the same conclusion when I ask myself "Who was the first person born in 1946 to become president?" as when I ask "Who was the first president to be born in 1946?".

    Logically speaking, I think we assign a date when both conditions of the question have been met for any candidate answer then take the minimum. I think this is what Brett is saying above. If I were thinking about this in R, and each candidate that met both conditions was a row and there were two columns, one for the date that condition A was met and one for when B was met, my code would be:

    which.min(pmax(candidates$A, candidates$B))

    If A is birth month in 1946 and B is year elected to presidency, it picks Clinton.

  18. DGC said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    I see it boiling down to whether the phrase "in the twentieth century" is describing the verb "born" or noun "president". As others have suggested, this ambiguity can be eliminated through sentence positioning:

    "Who was the president in the twentieth century born first?" (LBJ)
    "Who was the president born first in the twentieth century?" (JFK)

    Obviously this manipulation provides some syntactic awkwardness. I'd suggest the interrogative adjectival pronoun, though a bit impersonal, e.g.

    "Which president in the twentieth century was born first?"
    "Which president was born first in the twentieth century?"

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    A thought on the SQB possible counterexample: if you think of the U.S.-Presidents-to-date as a set of 43 (? – can't be bothered to confirm my suspicion that Obama-as-44 double-counts Cleveland), you could line them up either by date of first taking oath of office or by date of birth. The first order generally seems like the more obvious/salient one for Presidents, but maybe for "first born in 1946" the second actually seems more salient (maybe just because it seems like a much odder question — pure trivia without any symbolic import)? I'm not sure how one would develop a rigorous general theory of which alternative in likely to seem more salient in which context. Is the first order more salient simply because that is the order in which many of us at some point in our childhood were compelled to memorize the list as it then stood?

    The former order would also seem to have the advantage of permanence and thus lack of ambiguity. Once JFK is the answer, he can't get displaced by the fortuity of LBJ's subsequent election. On the other hand, Eisenhower's status as the last president born in the 19th century was obviously initially tentative — on the day of JFK's inauguration it couldn't be ruled out that 1964 or a later election wouldn't yield another 19th-century-born winner. But it still seems to me that if Eisenhower had (contrary to fact) been born a bit before Truman but still served in office after him, Ike rather than Harry would be the more plausible answer for last-born-in-the-19th-century.

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Oh, one other tack. Trivia questions, as a genre, are a weird form of discourse. Quaere whether they are or are not generally expected to conform to what seems to often be called the "cooperative principle" exemplified by the various Gricean maxims. I.e., are they intended to be answerable by a plausible reasonably knowledgeable person who isn't weirdly obsessive? In the context of U.S. Presidents for example, some double-digit percentage of the adult U.S. population might be expected to know that Pierce served as President before rather than after Buchanan, but only a weirdly obsessive person (perhaps statistically unlikely to be present in most conversational contexts) would be expected to know their relative order of birth. Whether as a matter of semantics/pragmatics the question should be interpreted in a light that does not require a weirdly obsessive addressee for an accurate answer might be an interesting topic for a scholar of sociolinguistics. This may be a slightly different issue (or at least a different facet of the same issue) from "trick questions" that rely on evading conventional definitional understandings, e.g. the claim that the "First President" was Hanson rather than Washington.

  21. comwave said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    I can observe that "acknowledging time sequence between the two events" plays a role in determining the appropriate one for the criteria. Given the answers to the two questions of the first President and the first Nobel Prize winner, people seem to perceive a more salient event in accordance with time sequence. And this tendency seems also to be based on common sense regarding event sequence; i.e. President after birth, and appointment after Nobel prize.

    This clarification might be separated from the example of "the first dog born at sea" because the example has only one event, that is, birth.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    In this case we will probably be obliged to consult Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's guide, Time Travellers' Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations, cited in Douglas Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

    "It will tell you for instance how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations whilst you are actually travelling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own father or mother. … Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up: and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs. "

  23. Jonathan said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    The question would have to have the just the right information structure in order to lead to an unambiguous result. "The first time someone who was born in the 20th Century was elected president" vs. the "the first baby born in the twentieth century who was subsequently elected president." Obama could turn out to be the first president born in Hawaii if someone older than him is elected president subsequently. It's a weird logic because presidents are elected, not born.

  24. Bob Lieblich said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    A high-value question from "Who wants to be a Millionaire" (American version) a few years back: "Who was the only president to appear on Laugh-In?" Desired answer: "Richard Nixon." But Nixon wasn't president when he appeared on "Laugh-In." Fortunately for the contestant, "none of the above" wasn't one of the choices offered.

    Okay, okay. But then there was the question about which of four composers never wrote a "requiem mass." Rossini was the desired answer, but Brahms also never wrote a "requiem mass." He wrote "Ein Deutsches Requiem," the text for which comprises several biblical passages translated into German, but no mass of any kind. Fortunately for the producers, the contestant, ignorant of all this and much more about classical music, guessed Verdi.

    There are eight million ambiguities in the Naked City. This has been one (two?) of them.

  25. Aviatrix said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    The way I see it is that Presidents have an order: they're all numbered. So to see which was the "first President" to meet any criterion, you go through the ordered list until you find a match.

    But then that theory suddenly falls apart if I ask, "who was the first president to die?" Most but not all presidents have died. "George Washington" unambiguously answers both interpretations of the question, but if he had outlived Adams and Jefferson, he would not be the answer I wanted.

  26. Ellen said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    Skullturf Q. Beavispants, to the question ""Who was the first president born in 1946?" I would say, none. Because they weren't president at birth. And that wording makes me read it as if they were. I wouldn't word it that way. I would say/write "Who was the first person to become president who was born in 1946?". I can't imagine asking it the with the other meaning unless the specific presidents were named, in which case, "Who was born earlier, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush?".

  27. D. Sky Onosson said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    @ Ellen:

    Really, you couldn't make sense of "Who was the first president born in 1946?" How about "Who was the first president born in Hawaii?" I would think that most speakers of English would not find that question very puzzling.

  28. acilius said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

    Comwave wrote:
    "(1) Sir Peter Frederick Strawson
    (2) Individuals; An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959, Routledge) p. 26"

    In the context of this discussion, it is interesting to refer to the P. F. Strawson of 1959 as "Sir Peter Frederick." Strawson would not be knighted until 1977.

    So we can add another example of this ambiguity, a particularly compelling one as it happens:

    "Who was the first knight to use the phrase 'the first dog born at sea' in a discussion of sense and reference?"

    As everyone keeps saying, one cannot occupy the US presidency while being born, so someone asking "Who was the first US president born in the twentieth century?" is likely to mean "What person born in the twentieth century became US president before any other person born in the twentieth century became US president?" On the other hand, it is certainly possible to use the phrase "the first dog born at sea" in a discussion of sense and reference while holding a knighthood. So the questioner may very well want to know something about discussions among that subset of British philosophers who have been knighted.

  29. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

    I admit my question is unnatural. Instead, how about the somewhat more likely "Who was the first president born in the 1940s?"

    (Historical note: So far, only two presidents have been born in that decade.)

  30. Rubrick said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    What I want to know is, in what year did Muhammed Ali win his first professional boxing match?

    [(myl) This depends, of course, on whether proper names are temporally rigid designators. I'm a bit surprised that no one has brought this concept up before now. ]

  31. Mark F. said,

    April 29, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

    Judging by the slowly growing corpus of examples in this discussion, I think that the "first person to meet both criteria" interpretation is almost always the one that's meant. Can anyone find an example from the wild where the other interpretation was intended?

    Personally, though, my gut reaction to questions like that is that they're poorly formed. When asking a trivia question you have a greater responsibility to be unambiguous than when you're IMing to a friend. On the other hand, you also have a greater incentive to be ambiguous since you can then trap your interlocutor into the wrong answer by refusing to acknowledge that their interpretation of your question has any validity.

  32. Clarence Rubin said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 1:52 am

    @ Dan T.: It's not Bingo. As I see it, if you are appointed to the Cabinet, and later win a Nobel Prize, you are not a Nobel Prize-winner who got appointed to the Cabinet, you are a (possibly former) Cabinet-member who won a Nobel Prize.

    For a hard-and-fast rule, I'm inclined to say it's the later event that matters, since this is the way I would answer in all cases that have been suggested (@Aviatrix: I agree that the first president to die is the one who died first).

    However, as is often the case, a hard-and-fast rule probably misses a lot of the subtlety of the question. I have to admit that the original question leaves a lot more room for doubt–or at least seeing why it could be misunderstood–than the one about the first president to die, suggesting that salience has something to do with it. Consider these four questions:

    1a) Of presidents, who was the first to die?
    1b) Of people who are dead, who was the first to be president?
    2a) Of people born in the 20th century, who became president first?
    2b) Of presidents who were born in the 20th century, who was born first?

    Maybe I answer the way I do because 1a is a more reasonable question than asking 1b, the latter being equivalent to "Who was the first president?"; since the majority of presidents are dead, including all the early ones, stipulating that the answer be someone who is deceased would be unnecessary. In contrast, though asking 2a seems somehow more reasonable than asking 2b–possibly because the former seems to ask for possibly relevant historical information, whereas the latter is boring trivia–both are at least questions that someone might ask.

    Salience is naturally a hard thing to get a handle on, but at least if the choice of interpretation is based on salience, we can answer with a resounding YES, it's ambiguous.

  33. Rubrick said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 5:53 am

    @myl: I'm surprised too. Examples and variations abound. Was Clark Kent ever on Krypton? How many Grammys has Gordon Sumner won? Who is the Tennessee Titans' all-time leading rusher?

    Perhaps there's not really much to learn about these. Still, while I'm not a linguist, I've often suspected that proper names and their unique properties are given somewhat short shrift in the field.

  34. comwave said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 7:10 am

    Oh, now, I saw Ian Preston (April 29, 2009 @ 8:25 am) was faster than me (April 29, 2009 @ 11:33 am) in mentioning Strawson's Individuals. If Strawson is the answer to the promised quiz, the prize of Free Lifetime LL Subscription should go to Ian Preston.

    But, at least, the searching journey to answer the quiz was not fruitless to me. I came to know some important names; Strawson, Kripke, Quine, and so on. This finding is already a good prize to me. :)

    Sometimes for me, LL means Learn Learn.

  35. Breffni said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 7:39 am

    I don't know how (whether) this fits with the notion of rigid designators, but I'm reminded of an Irish Times headline from 2005: "New Pope celebrates his first public mass". Crikey, I briefly thought, didn't anyone ask about his work experience before they gave him the job?

    If I understand the de dicto / de re distinction correctly, the headline was true if "new Pope" is read de dicto, false if de re. The same categorisation could be applied to readings of claims about Muhammad Ali, Gordon Sumner, etc.

  36. Robert said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    For names and titles, there are usages like 'the former Miss Smith' and 'the future Duke of Wellington' which imply those designations aren't considered rigid designators.

    Also, compare 'the president-to-be born in the twentieth century' with 'the first president to be born in the twentieth century'. The first is unambiguous in writing, but not in speech.

  37. Ian Preston said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    @comwave: I am happy to share the prize (that is, assuming we are right).

  38. bianca steele said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    I do feel the question is slightly ambiguous. I, however, can't guarantee I'm a typical English user, so my evidence is only anecdotal. I think a certain kind of high school teacher does take pleasure in handing students these kinds of puzzles and atuning their brains to find ambiguity where it really isn't.

    If I had to guess, I'd say we might first parse the sentence syntactically, see it takes a standard form (first dog born in Rhode Island, first McMansion built on the block); on checking whether it makes sense, we find that it might well be the way we'd phrase the other, unintended sentence if that had been what we wanted to say; and so the "incorrect" meaning passes. We have to give it conscious thought to see that the logical form the sentence must represent is not what it seemed at first to say.

    "Learn Learn": I read this as "Learn Latin," maybe a modern replacement for "tolle, lege"?

  39. Neal Goldfarb said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    The fact that who was the first president to die? is interpreted differently than who was the first president born in the twentieth century? strongly suggests that a significant part of the sentences' semantics is whether the people in the set of possible answers had the quality of being a president — that's a president not president — at the time of the event described by the verb. (This assumes that once you become president, you retain the quality of being a president even after you leave office. I suspect that this assumption is supported by the evidence of actual usage.)

  40. Mark Liberman said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Who was the first U.S. president to die in the 20th century?

    Benjamin Harrison took office 3/4/1889, died 3/13/1901
    William McKinley took office 3/4/1897, died 9/14/1901
    Grover Cleveland took office 3/4/1885, died 6/25/1908

    My first reaction is that it's Benjamin Harrison, because he died first, even though he became president four years later than Grover Cleveland did. This is the opposite of my first reaction to the "first president to be born in the 20th century" question.

    But on reflection, I think it's clear that at least the "first to die" question is ambiguous.

  41. acilius said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    "I think it's clear that at least the "first to die" question is ambiguous."

    If so, I doubt it's ambiguous in the way the "first president born in the twentieth century" is ambiguous. A person can be a president or former president at the moment of death, but not at the moment of birth. So a locution like "The first president born in the twentieth century" might not be synonymous with "The first future president born in the twentieth century." On the other hand, "The first president to die in the twentieth century" might very well be synonymous with "The first incumbent president to die in the twentieth century," and would then refer to William McKinley.

  42. Alexandra said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    To allay any doubt that this sentence is indeed ambiguous, I offer the data point of my husband (whom I often annoy by asking for his reaction to various examples from LL). He interpreted the question as asking "Which president was the first one born in the twentieth century?" and had a hard time making himself see how it could mean anything else.

    I can easily read the question with either interpretation. It's a feeling similar to looking at the Necker Cube–the question "flips" from one interpretation to the other.

  43. Aaron Davies said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 12:06 am

    i'm a bit surprised no one has suggested the phrasing "the first twentieth-century -born president", which would seem to me to be unambiguous.

  44. comwave said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 1:19 am

    I think this ambiguity results from which modifier first becomes salient to the eyes of readers rather than from where a certain modifier is positioned in a sentence with more than two modifiers. And the order of salience can be different from the actual order of the events concerned due to difference of a reader's degree of impression on the events or the topic. This confused perception in the time sequence of two events may result in a confusion of meaning.

    Sometimes our brain seems to take in the information by its sensors differently from the reality. (It would be frustrating if some doubt what the reality is as philosophers do). This phenomenon is salient in the case of visual illusions (if bianca steele read my personal LL for Learn Learn as Learn Latin inadvertently, it would be a good case.). Forbes has a story on it.

    My reasoning is that such illusion may happen in our perception of time, order, meaning, and so on. Why such an illusion? Time will let scientists have the answer, but not yet. (When my PC somethimes shows defected output image on the monitor, I guess, the VGA card is heated, it misses some calculations, and it needs some rest.)

    Therefore, the one responsible for this ambiguity is not the language, but the brain. If the quiz creator in GAMES magazine had a fault, it would be that he presumably and inadvertently assumed the completeness of human brain.

    (I don't know why I can't put some colors or other effects in my comments as others do. I wanted to put "bianca steele" in blue color. Is this because I use a PC, not a Mac, or should I learn some HTML script for WordPress?)

  45. bunsen_lamp said,

    May 1, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    "How about "Who was the first president born in Hawaii?" I would think that most speakers of English would not find that question very puzzling."

    I'd say Sanford B.Dole (1844-1926), the 1st and only president of Republic of Hawaii. No?

  46. Bob Ray said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    I suspect that if the frequency of the events is quite different, the least likely event (as opposed to the most salient) takes precedence. This makes JFK the correct answer.

    When the odds of the events are more similar, as in the case of cabinet appointees and Nobel prize winners, salience (or perhaps the topic being written about — cabinets members versus Nobel prize winners) might determine the meaning.

  47. Joeyg said,

    October 23, 2013 @ 1:54 am

    "the logic that places Johnson first ranks Kennedy fifth of the six: His birthdate was May 29, 1917, two months after Ronald Reagan’s. It’s hard to think of Kennedy as older than Reagan, isn’t it?"

    Two problems with this…first: Reagan was born on Feb 6, 1911, which would make him second of the six. Second: saying Kennedy was born two months after Reagan would make him younger then Reagan not older.

    There is also No problem with the language. the question posed was "Who was the first president born in the Twentieth Century?" Kennedy. No problem there. If it was "Which of the presidents was was the first to be born in the Twentieth Century?" Then the answer would be 'Johnson'

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