PP attachment ambiguity of the month

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Nora Kelly, "Susan Collins Unveils a Gun-Control Compromise: It would restrict sales to individuals on two terrorist watch lists", The Atlantic 6/21/2016.

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t J. Patrick Pazdziora]


  1. GH said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 7:07 am

    In either interpretation it verges on an Onion headline.

  2. richardelguru said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 7:08 am

    That'll solve everything!!

  3. Sili said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns?

    Took me forever to get the intended meaning of that deepity, when I first heard it years ago. My immediate reaction was a tautological "Well, duh.".

  4. Matt Whyndham said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 8:32 am

    Scratches head. So would the restriction apply if the buyer were on both lists, or either of them?

  5. John Chambers said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 8:45 am

    Nah; it really says that if we outlaw guns, only (officially recognized) terrorists will have guns. ;-)

    That was the first interpretation that I read, but I eventually figured out what the (presumably intended) reading was. After all, if you read in an event announcement that "attendance is limited/restricted to members only", you don't usually interpret it as meaning that non-members have no such limitation and can attend if they want to.

    Is there a name for this particular sort of ambiguity?

  6. Lazar said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 9:07 am

    @Sili: And if we don't, only in-laws will have them.

  7. KeithB said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    Like one of the last lines in Disney's Robin hood:
    King Richard: "I now have an outlaw for an in-law!"

  8. Narmitaj said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 10:41 am

    A well deregulated Opposition, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of Terrorists to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    "It would restrict sales to individuals on two terrorist watch lists": is it only people on precisely two watch lists (no more, no fewer) who can be sold any weapons, or people on at least two but maybe more watch lists who can be sold weapons?

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 11:09 am

    Shouldn't headline writers know that a prepositional phrase beginning with "to" can modify either "restrict" or "sales"? Perhaps someone {e.g. MYL) could write a manual for them on how to avoid such ambiguities.

  10. David N. Evans said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    "It would restrict sales to individuals on two terrorist watch lists." Wow. The passive would have been really helpful there: "Sales to individuals on two terrorist watch lists would be restricted." Without it, I can't help hearing the other meaning: "Sales would be restricted to individuals on two terrorist watch lists."

  11. Michael Watts said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    Matt Whyndham: it's not that there are two official lists, it's that you can't buy guns unless you're listed on at least two of an unspecified number of lists.

  12. Zonga Drinskalker said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    Nobody going to comment on the use of the word "unveiled" here?

  13. Zonga Drinskalker said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 2:38 pm

    By the way, I prefer Swiss watches to the terrorist ones. Terrorist ones just always say "Time to die!"

  14. will Thomas said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    But then we could arrest those who buy guns as terrorists.

  15. Paul Kay said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    Is this a PP attachment ambiguity? It seems to me that the phrase "individuals on two terrorist watch lists" contains the ambiguity as a free-standing NP, e.g., as a subject. Doesn't the following sentence convey the same ambiguity? "Individuals on two terrorist watch lists have actually passed background checks."

  16. Rubrick said,

    June 22, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

    Interestingly (and perhaps this is what richardelguru meant?), if we were to restrict gun sales to only those on both lists, the eventual overall reduction in gun violence would surely be immense. In fact, I'd wager that would be true even if we gave a free gun to every suspected terrorist in the U.S., just as long as no one else was allowed to have one.

  17. Michael Watts said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 1:07 am

    Paul Kay: there are several different types of ambiguity in the sentence, as I allude to in my earlier comment. One of them definitely is a PP attachment ambiguity — "to individuals on two terrorist watch lists" might be a complement of "sales", in which case "sales to individuals on two terrorist watch lists" would be subject to restrictions, or it might be a complement of "restrict", in which case "sales" would be restricted to individuals on two terrorist watch lists. The most common way to understand that would be that only such individuals may be the purchaser in a sale, but you could argue for the restriction being that only such individuals may be the vendor.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 5:07 am

    Rubrick beat me to it.

  19. Ray said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    I read it as: "hey guys, we've got a compromise, because now instead of refusing to sell guns to anyone who's listed on any terrorist watch list (something that's pretty impossible to justify or guarantee, what with so many lists and all the mistakes of being falsely listed or overlooked), we've decided to pick the two most dastardly lists to watch over. that way we'll just be focusing on the really really bad guys, and we'll be able to keep a closer watch on them, and gun violence as we know it will end in america! deal?"

  20. Matt said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 7:19 am

    … is what I thought it was supposed to mean. My ignorance of these lists is profound. e.g. why don't you have just the one Government-approved List of Bad People? But then I forgot, you have at least three major agencies who might claim that their list is better than the other two. Still don't know, and specimen sentence doesn't tell me, if the intended criterion is IF (subject) is MEMBER_of (LIST(A) OR LIST (B)) THEN RESTRICT, or A AND B.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 8:39 am


    Why do you assume there are only two lists?

  22. David N. Evans said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 11:27 am

    The additional layer of ambiguity Michael Watts is referring to would perhaps be easier to see if "individuals on two terrorist watch lists" were replaced with "individuals on two phone lists."

  23. Gwen Katz said,

    June 23, 2016 @ 4:09 pm

    There was another crash blossom that I didn't screencap: something like "Comfort dogs dispatched after mass shooting by Lutheran pastor."

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