Disastrous ambiguity

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Talking of the possibly impending Grexit, what an unfortunate sentence The Economist chose to conclude its leader article on the ongoing Greek monetary crisis:

This marriage is not worth saving at any price.

A quirk of English syntax and semantics makes this radically ambiguous.

First, it can be paraphrased by "Not at any price would this marriage be worth saving," or "There is no price it would be reasonable to pay in order to save this marriage." I.e., the marriage is definitely not worth saving, and any suggested price for saving it would be too high. This involves any used as what linguists call a non-affirmative polarity item: it's a sort of alter ego of some that we use in contexts where we are not asserting a positive claim (compare There are some eggs with Are there are any eggs? and There aren't any eggs).

Second, it can also mean "To say that this marriage is worth saving regardless of the price would not be true." I.e., it is worth saving, but the price could turn out to be too high to make that sensible. This involves a different use of any, the one that linguists call "free-choice any".

If I give the original context, citing the previous sentence and putting back the irrelevant initial word but that I suppressed, you have enough information to guess which was meant:

Avoiding divorce would be better for everyone. But this marriage is not worth saving at any price.

The editors clearly intended the second meaning, and anyone who was following the drift of their argument would be able to figure that out. But what a strikingly dysfunctional language we have to contend with!

The first meaning is not at all outlandish or implausible or grammatically dubious. If I said "There is an upper limit to how much the house could be sold for, so it won't be worth fixing up at any price," you'd probably assume I meant I'm not planning to fix it up without paying any regard to what the contractor thinks it will cost (you don't want to end up with a half-million-dollar house in a hundred-thousand-dollar street).

Yet if I said "The house is just a ramshackle junkpile located in a swamp, and it won't be worth fixing up at any price," you'd assume I meant it's not going to be fixed up at all; we're just going to let the swamp reclaim it.

It won't be worth fixing up at any price is a completely natural way to express either meaning.

The moral of the story: don't ever imagine that languages strive to avoid ambiguity. Languages don't. They are replete with ambiguity traps, as if ambiguity was exactly what most people wanted most of the time. Corporate lawyers spend millions of billable hours trying to write contract language that doesn't have any ambiguities, and they fail, and more money has to be paid to the lawyers who conduct the resultant lawsuit over who is committed to what under the contract terms.

Good writers may strive to be unambiguous, when ambiguity would be really undesirable, if they happen to notice that there is a threat of it; but if you're expecting a human language to provide you with some kind of safety guarantee that you will get your message across successfully, dream on.

Flying planes can be as dangerous as visiting relatives. And I'm not sure which of the four meanings of that sentence I actually meant.

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