A really big sinkhole

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J.C. send a link to Justin Hyde, "Chevy Unveils The Restored 1 Millionth Corvette Pulled From A Kentucky Sinkhole", Yahoo! Autos 9/3/2015, with the comment "This must be some big ass sinkhole".

Looking a big deeper, we find that the sinkhole did actually swallow up eight corvettes, which is far short of a million, but still must be a record for Corvette swallowing — "Sinkhole at Corvette Museum swallows eight rare Vettes", Motoramic 2/12/2014.

The sinkhole:

Obligatory headline screenshot:

This would make a good exam question for a syntax or linguistic semantics course: Explain the various interpretations. Are they structurally different? Justify your answer.

Hint — Consider the interpretation of these two pairs of examples:

Snooki is out promoting her latest book, called "Confessions of a Guidette".
The story of the latest objects repatriated to the Navajo under NAGPRA took me 188 miles to the east of Flagstaff.

All the best gossip can be found in a hair salon.
A clue to how the effort might fare can be found in a Peruvian mountain farming village where, last year, prototypes were handed out.


  1. Jim Manheim said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    What is the origin of "ass" as used in the comment from the original sender of the link?

    [(myl) The origin? I don't know anything beyond the obvious speculation. But some information about the progress of this expression and its relatives can be found in past posts:

    "New intensifiers", 8/16/2004
    "The intensified crack of dawn?", 6/7/05
    "Root haughtiness", 8/20/11
    "Is it a prosodic-ass constraint?", 8/25/11
    "Rachel Jenteal's language in the Zimmerman trial", 7/10/13
    "Can '[adjective]-ass" occur predicatively?", 11/18/2013
    "Ignoble-ass citation practices", 11/12/2014

  2. Yuval said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 9:29 am

    Spoiler: (possibly correct) solution.
    The ambiguity arises from whether the modifier "one millionth" modifies the "Corvette" only, as intended, or the entire remainder of the sentence, as misread under the collossal-posterior hypothesis.
    Under an imposed-binarity X-bar framework this could be accounted for syntactically: the "pulled" clause is either an adjunct joining the NP containing the numerical specifier (former), or a complement attached to the N-bar "Corvette" before the specifier is applied (latter).

  3. Jonathon Owen said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

    Even though I read about the Corvette-swallowing sinkhole when it happened, I was still tripped up by that headline. That's some powerful ambiguity.

  4. BobW said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

    Where I worked at an electronics manufacturer, the equipment calibration resistors were kept in a drawer marked "BAR" for Big… Resistors.

  5. JB said,

    September 12, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

    "It took … the resources of one of the world's largest automakers."
    This statement might not be syntactically confusing, but it's very ambiguous in another way. It seems to imply it cost a lot money to do the repair, but it would be true whether Chevy had spent 1 cent or 1 billion dollars.

  6. Christian R. Conrad said,

    September 13, 2015 @ 3:12 am

    I suspect this might be what Yuval said above, and probably also what Prof Liberman's examples in the post were meant to show, but since I'm not quite sure I'll ask for confirmation: What is meant is that a comma between "1 millionth Corvette" and "pulled from a Kentucky sinkhole" would have prevented the ambiguity, right?

    (Side note: Ugly mix of numbers and letters. "One-millionth" would have looked better.)

  7. Ellen K. said,

    September 13, 2015 @ 7:20 am

    Christian R. Conrad, I do think that outside of a headline the correct reading would require a comma as you note, and possible additional words "…one-millionth Corvette, which was pulled…".

    On the other hand, I have to work to see anything but the intended meaning in the headline.

  8. Jeffrey Percival said,

    September 13, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    BobW: We have a drawer at work with a hammer in it. The drawer is labelled "BMFH".

  9. Don said,

    September 14, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    BobW and Jeffrey: When I was in the Navy, one of the other sailors said to me, "You know all this Navy stuff. What is that piece of machinery in the shipyard?" I solemnly told him, "That's a BMF."

  10. chris said,

    September 14, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

    The ambiguity of the Corvette example actually goes further than the hair salon example — not only were the other 999,999 Corvettes not pulled from the *same* Kentucky sinkhole, they (most of them) weren't pulled from *any* sinkholes in Kentucky or anywhere else. So neither of the two most straightforward interpretations is correct.

    I'm slightly puzzled by the description of the examples as two pairs, though — ISTM all except the hair salon (which is genuinely ambiguous until you realize one of the interpretations is absurd, like the thread starter) are most naturally read as having only one referent.

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