Those X-ing Ys

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From Stan Carey:

This ambiguity in a tweet from the British prime minister may be of minor interest:

In the unlikely event that the ambiguity is not obvious to you:

Mr. Cameron meant to refer to "those [people] [who are] fleeing ISIL terrorists", where "those" is what CGEL calls a "fused determiner-head" (and what others sometimes call a demonstrative pronoun), followed by the post-head modifier "fleeing ISIL terrorists", in which "fleeing" is a verb taking "ISIL terrorists" as its object. But "those" might alternatively be a simple determinative, followed by the modifier "fleeing" and the head "ISIL terrorists", as in "those cheering crowds".

I don't think that very many non-linguist readers will have noticed the second reading, at least not without being primed to look for it.

But this is a case where the statistics based on part-of-speech alone point in the wrong direction. In a search of COCA for the pattern "those [vvg] [nn2]", out of the first 100 examples that I checked, only 25 involved the plural noun as the head of the phrase, with "those" as a simple determinative:

attending schools, bearing arms, bearing swastikas, committing crimes, involving comparisons, involving kids, involving parents, losing jobs, making calls, making decisions, plotting attacks, providing services, receiving grants, receiving services, refinancing mortgages, reflecting themes, renting apartments, reporting symptoms, saying deficits, seeking jobs, studying questions, taking risks, taking steroids, teaching grades, wielding powers

In 75 cases, the gerund-participle+noun combination was a post-head modifier of the fused determiner-head "those" (or a reduced relative modifying a demonstrative pronoun, in more traditional terms):

accounting models, acting lessons, aggravating factors, banking officials, bathing suits, beginning teachers, betting windows, bickering bills, bidding fools, billing records, building blocks, building codes, casting decisions, contradicting predictions, coping skills, dancing lessons, defining features, defining issues, defining moments, drinking glasses, dumping laws, fighting words, flashing lights, graduating seniors, haunting eyes, housing developments, housing prices, jogging shorts, knitting needles, learning expectations, learning experiences, lobbying efforts, manufacturing jobs, moving men, moving walkways, navigating skills, neighboring countries, nesting instincts, opening ceremonies, opening credits, opening lines, parenting classes, parting words, pleading eyes, polling numbers, polling places, polling stations, popping noises, reading glasses, reading skills, reflecting pools, rising margins, screaming girls, speaking engagements, spending caps, spending cuts, spending projects, standing ovations, staring eyes, starting points, talking heads, teaching assistants, teaching behaviors, thinking skills, threatening letters, twinkling eyes, voting booths, warning shots, warning signs, washing machines, wavering republicans, working families, working men, working women, writing skills

To get the right answer, a parser would somehow need to know that the ISIL forces are currently advancing, not fleeing; or that Mr. Cameron is unlikely to be praising President Obama for getting aid to terrorists. Or less topically, a parser might rely on the fact that the phrase "those fleeing Xs" is in general very unlikely to involve Xs that are fleeing.

In fact, the appropriate analysis is overwhelmingly favored even for the simple sequence "those fleeing". Thus in every single one of the first 100 hits in the NYT index for "those fleeing" (regardless of the following noun phrase if any),  "those" is a fused determiner-head (= demonstrative pronoun) and "fleeing" is (all or part of) a post-head modifier.

 



36 Comments

  1. Nathan said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    I'm not a linguist, but I minored in it. I didn't notice the ambiguity; I got only the unintended reading. Seemed pretty snarky to me. I think maybe your post title primed me.

  2. leoboiko said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 9:20 am

    I'm a non-native speaker, and studied some linguistics (more or less like the American "minor" system, methinks). I read this the same way as Nathan, and agree about the potential priming.

  3. MH said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 9:28 am

    The ambiguity I noticed was between "Obama's pledge to help … and [to] get aid" and "the Iraqi government [to] tackle … and [to] get aid."

  4. Mark Meckes said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 9:29 am

    I have no training in linguistics at all. I noticed the ambiguity, but I'm certain the title primed me, since I specifically paused to think about how I would parse "Those X-ing Ys" before I moved on to the post itself.

  5. MN said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 10:04 am

    I'm a PhD student in linguistics and the tweet made me laugh (after I'd read the title, of course). It's at least as funny as "Enraged Cow Kills Farmer With Axe", for instance. Maybe even at "British Left Waffles on Falklands" levels. And this isn't a construction that figures in jokes (or these naturally-occuring ambiguities on which they're based) as often, it seems.

  6. Brett said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 10:16 am

    I got the intended meaning when I managed to read all the way through. However, I was sidetracked at just the crucial juncture when I noticed that the prime minister was referring to the Islamic State by what it was called two names ago.

  7. David B said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    I'm an academic linguist, and i initially got the second reading (ISIL's on the run?—i hadn't heard that), without even being struck by the incongruity of the UK providing aid to ISIL until after i read the explanation of the ambiguity.

    There may have been priming from the title that i wasn't aware of, but i read the quote before i read the line leading into it that said it was ambiguous, what with it being called out typographically and all.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    I immediately thought of the similar "get aid to those fucking ISIL terrorists." The ambiguity is even more treacherous."

  9. Jon said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    I'm not a linguist, and got only the unintended meaning. I had to read carefully to get the intended meaning. Leaving out 'the' from 'those fleeing the ISIL terrorists' seems like headlinese to me.

  10. John Roth said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

    I got both meanings, but then I'm somewhat of a fan of puns and other ambiguities.

  11. Levantine said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    Jon, for me, "*the* ISIL terrorists" sounds strangely unidiomatic, even if unambiguous (I can't imagine ordinarily saying "the al-Qaeda terrorists" or "the IRA terrorists"). It seems to me that a "from" after "fleeing" would be the most elegant solution (though I myself had trouble seeing any but the intended meaning).

  12. Ross Presser said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    @Mr Fnortner: indeed. Immediately after reading "those X-ing Y's" I was primed to replace "X" with "fuck". I suppose this is because of my dirty mind. The sentence I eventually settled on was something like "I really can't stand those fucking IRS agents" … in which my distaste has everything to do with people who work for the IRS and nothing to do with the other people who sleep with those who work for the IRS.

  13. Doreen said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

    Just wondering: is COCA (emphasis on the "A") the best data source to use when analysing a tweet by the British prime minister?

  14. Chuck said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

    I'm another non-linguist who got only the unintended meaning.

  15. HW said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    Long time lurker on Language Log. I only got the unintended meaning and spent several head spinning seconds trying to understand why Obama is giving aid to Isil and why Mr. Cameron welcomes it.

  16. Steve said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    I have no training in linguistics. Two readings initially struck me, neither of which was the intended meaning: 1. The US has pledged to aid the ISIL terrorists, who are fleeing (makes no sense in context, but the most natural reading of the text); 2. Some former ISIL terrorists want to break ranks and flee from their former cohorts, and the US has pledged to help them flee (strained reading of the text, but makes more sense in context than #1, though still a bizarrely indirect form of aid for the US to offer). So, in reading #2, "those fleeing ISIL terrorists" means "those members of the ISIL, a terrorist group, who are fleeing from it."

    Neither reading was satisfactory, to put it mildly, so I re-read it and eventually twigged on to the intended meaning.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

    It looks like the conclusion ("statistics based on part of speech alone point in the wrong direction") is right, but you seem to have flipped the descriptions of the categories? Surely "those bearing arms" and "those taking steroids" feature a fused determiner-head "those", while "those haunting eyes" and "those knitting needles" feature a pure-determiner "those"?

    I have minimal linguistic training and got only the unintended reading, possibly primed by the title "Those X-ing Ys". In speech, I think I'd expect the "those" of "those fleeing ISIL terrorists" to receive some sentence-level stress in the intended reading, whereas the syllable "flee" would receive the stress in the unintended reading.

  18. Daniel Barkalow said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

    I briefly considered the possibility that Obama was encouraging ISIL forces to defect. I might have missed a story about ISIL terrorists who were repulsed by what their side was doing but needed help to get out of doing it.

  19. David B said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 4:38 pm

    The lesson to this point in the comment thread, i suppose: When talking about ambiguity, be very, very careful about making blanket statements like "I don't think that very many non-linguist readers will have noticed the second reading", or even claiming that the multiple possible meanings of an ambiguity being non-obvious is an "unlikely event".

  20. Maurice Buxton said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    Add me to the list of people who got the unintended meaning first (in this case, without actually giving the post title more than a passing glance). I suspect the formatting may have had something to do with that — i.e. it reads (on my screen, at any rate)

    … get aid to those fleeing
    ISIL terrorists

    which probably primed me to read "fleeing" as a description of what was about to appear next. If it had been

    … get aid to those
    fleeing ISIL terrorists

    with the "pause" in the same place as the link break, I would probably have seen "fleeing ISIL terrorists" as a unit explaining who "those" were.

    Or maybe that's just me …!

  21. Maurice Buxton said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

    Er, line break not link break. Sorry.

  22. David Morris said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    My first thought was that 'fleeing from NP' would be more common than 'fleeing NP', but Google Ngrams shows 'fleeing the country/scene/city' are more common than 'fleeing from …'.
    'Fleeing terrorists' returns results from the 1940s onwards, but 'fleeing from terrorists' none at all (up to 2000).

  23. Julian Hook said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 7:29 pm

    I agree with Michael Watts's observation: it appears that in the original post the descriptions of the two categories have been swapped. The first 25 examples, I think, are the ones with fused determiner-heads; the other 75 are the ones with the plural noun as the head of the phrase.

    It's interesting that few if any of those 100 examples could be ambiguous. (Theoretically "those moving men" or "those washing machines" could be ambiguous, but we really don't talk very often about people who move men or who wash machines.) The ambiguity in "those fleeing terrorists" appears to depend on the fact that "flee" can be either a transitive or an intransitive verb while "terrorists" can plausibly be either its subject or its object.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    August 8, 2014 @ 11:14 pm

    Hmm… I was going to make a comment on the difference between, say, "those moving sidewalks", where the sidewalks are being described as "moving", and "those nesting instincts", where, instead of the instincts nesting, the complement of "those" is the complex noun "nesting instincts"…

    but I'm now much more disturbed by the fact that "housing developments" and "housing prices" came up as results in a search for "those [vvg] [nn2]". I agree that "prices" and "developments" are plural nouns, but housing isn't a verb — it's also a noun.

  25. AndreLB said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 12:27 am

    This post made me think of Scooby Doo. In the unlikely event that the reason for this is not obvious to you:

    The villain, after having his nasty plan thwarted by the gang, would say at the end of each episode something along the lines of "I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for [those meddling kids]!"

    Hmmm, COCA says (3 occurrences) that it was actually "you meddling kids".

  26. chris said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 7:25 am

    @AndreLB: Can "meddling" take a direct object? I can't think of an unforced-sounding example.

    Also, +1 to the second ambiguity pointed out by MH: who is getting aid (to whomever), Obama or the Iraqi government? Thinking it over, ISTM the most likely reading is that Obama is pledging to help the Iraqi government get aid to someone, but it could be read as Obama pledging to aid them directly.

    I would say "personally", but under the circumstances — Obama being POTUS — interpreting him as the subject of "help" or "get aid to" naturally leads to the interpretation that he will direct someone in the U.S. government to do so, rather than literally doing it himself.

  27. Lugubert said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 7:46 am

    I'm a Swede holding a linguistics degree. Score one more for the unintended meaning. Does that reveal how I feel about Cameron's and Obama's foreign policies?

  28. cM said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    I'm another primed example (it actually took me a couple of seconds to even see the intended meaning). I blame the post's title.

    I have no formal linguistics background (I don't think maths count here), but have done quite a bit of reading about it over the years.

  29. isaiah said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    Now I'm trying to come up with more examples of this construction that are ambiguous without context, i.e. they don't tend to suggest one of the two readings more than the other. Maybe my best example so far is "those missing tickets".

  30. Akito said,

    August 9, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

    Those flying machines can be:
    1. "those people who are flying machines"
    2. "those machines that are flying"
    3. "those machines that are for flying"

  31. AndreLB said,

    August 10, 2014 @ 5:43 am

    @chris Yes I agree with you. "Meddling" is intransitive, so there is no nice ambiguity in the Scooby Doo example. I just mentioned it as it was the first "those X-ing Ys" construction that came to my mind and was a reference from popular culture that I thought others would remember.

  32. James Wimberley said,

    August 10, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    The use of "flee" as a transitive verb suggests British tabloid headline-writers to me, as would multiple appositions ("Oxon man on wife murder bid charge"). Cameron has an élite education, but he and his staff are professionally attuned to the tabloids. Politicians and their viziers practice economy of the truth, headline writers economy of the word.

    BTW, what's the word for a tweet generated by a sidekick, giving the false impression of spontaneity? Tweetoid?

  33. David J. Littleboy said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    "To get the right answer, a parser would somehow need to know that…"

    This problem was well known in the early 1970s. Terry Winograd (sp?) used the following examples in a course he taught back then.

    The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.

    The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence.

    So I've never understood the fascination of corpora-based parsing. It can't possibly work, and we knew this when dinosaurs still walked the earth.

  34. Adrian said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 6:33 am

    I read it wrong too – took me three goes to get it right. Unfortunate.

  35. Dan said,

    August 11, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    Yet another non-linguist who read the unintended meaning and had to struggle to figure out what the unintended meaning was.

  36. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 12, 2014 @ 4:07 am

    Sounda almost like a Palinesque 'those'

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