People she doesn't know

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Yoram Meroz described this to me as a "lovely ambiguous headline": "Clinton aide Huma Abedin has told people she doesn't know how her emails wound up on her husband's computer", Washington Post 10/29/2016.

Yoram didn't specify the ambiguity, but I presume that the issue is whether Ms. Abedin [told people [she doesn't know how it happened]], or rather [told [people she doesn't know] [how it happened]].

Bizarrely, the Berkeley parser finds a different structure, where the apostrophe-s is a reduced form of "is" rather than a possessive, and some weird stuff is going on as well with "doesn't":

(ROOT
  (S
    (NP (NNP Huma) (NNP Abedin))
    (VP (VBZ has)
      (VP (VBN told)
        (SBAR
          (S
            (NP
              (NP (NNS people))
              (SBAR
                (S
                  (NP (PRP she))
                  (VP (VBP doesn)
                    (S
                      (VP (TO t)
                        (VP (VB know)
                          (SBAR
                            (WHADVP (WRB how))
                            (S
                              (NP (PRP$ her) (NNS emails))
                              (VP (VBD wound)
                                (PRT (RP up))
                                (PP (IN on)
                                  (NP (PRP$ her) (NN husband)))))))))))))
            (VP (VBZ s)
              (NP (NN computer)))))))
    (. .)))

Obligatory screenshot:



23 Comments

  1. Cervantes said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    That headline is … a wonderment.

  2. Ellen K. said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    The ambiguity I noticed on reading it was the female pronouns.

  3. Guy said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 2:50 pm

    At first I was going to express surprise at the fact the Berkeley parser was so quick to accept "computer" as a full noun phrase. But now I'm more surprised that it actuallt went for the structure "told [clause]". How common are attested uses of "tell" in this way (outside the "I can tell" idiom)?

  4. David Morris said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    Insertion of 'that' wouldn't disambiguate. Insertion of 'who' would. But as far as I know, 'that' and 'who' are not or are rarely used in headlinese.

  5. Cervantes said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

    Mark Liberman writes:

    Bizarrely, the Berkeley parser finds a different structure, where the apostrophe-s is a reduced form of "is" rather than a possessive

    Try feeding this to the parser: "Clinton aide Huma Abedin has told people she doesn't know how her emails reached her husband's computer."

  6. David Morris said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 4:37 pm

    PS insertion of 'who' would disambiguate, but lead to the wrong reading. (And some purists might even insist on 'whom'.)

  7. Will said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    If you don't know the gender of Huma, it's not clear whose emails we're talking about

  8. AB said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    How does knowing her gender clear things up?

  9. Yoram Meroz said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 6:15 pm

    What I found so striking was the great practical difference between the two parsings. As of this writing, these politically-charged emails exist, but their content, significance and provenance are unknown. By one parsing of the headline, Abedin is in the dark as much as everybody. By the other parsing, she knows the history of the emails, but inexplicably shared it only with some complete strangers.

  10. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 30, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    It puts me in mind of an example Tom Wasow came up with when I challenged him to devise a sentence in which the choice of "who" or "whom" would be semantically decisive: "I would never tell anyone stories about who/whom appeared in the New York Times."

  11. Keith said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 2:43 am

    Not knowing the gender of Huma Abedin, but assuming that the Clinton in question is the famous female Hillary Clinton, we might think that the emails and husband in question belong to Hillary.

  12. James Wimberley said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 5:47 am

    I had to work hard to find the ambiguity in the second place. The reading "Huma told (people she doesn't know) how (her emails ended up etc)" is very forced.

  13. Rodger C said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 6:45 am

    It seemed obvious to me, at least after being primed by the post title.

  14. Mr Punch said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 7:20 am

    The "people she doesn't know" would presumably be FBI agents – so a perfectly plausible reading.

  15. DWalker07 said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    It took me a minute to realize that in the second reading, she (Huma) told some people "how it happened"… meaning that she knows how it happened.

    Of course, it now seems obvious that the "doesn't know" can attach to only one of the nearby phrases, not both. But the change in meaning is striking.

  16. chris said,

    October 31, 2016 @ 9:08 pm

    Not knowing the gender of Huma Abedin, but assuming that the Clinton in question is the famous female Hillary Clinton, we might think that the emails and husband in question belong to Hillary.

    Potentially the not knowing could belong to Hillary, too. "What did the presidential candidate know, and when did she know it?" could prove to be a relevant question if there does turn out to be something interesting in the emails.

    Pronouns alone give eight possible interpretations, even without the issue of where "she doesn't know" fits in. Not all of them particularly reasonable, but it still demonstrates how hard parsing is.

    It takes most people several years of daily practice to master it, a fact that sometimes escapes notice because (for their native language) it is the first few years of their lives, which they subsequently don't remember too clearly.

  17. Faldone said,

    November 1, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    As has been pointed out addition of that wouldn't clear anything up and addition of who(m) would lead to the wrong reading. Non-standard how as would clear things up nicely.

    Clinton aide Huma Abedin has told people how as she doesn't know how her emails wound up on her husband's computer.

  18. Keith said,

    November 2, 2016 @ 4:31 pm

    @Chris

    I wonder how soon we will have statements along the lines of "Clinton won't explain just how much she didn't know, nor when it was that she didn't know it"…

  19. Graeme said,

    November 3, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    I suppose stressed out politicos tell things to their dogs, plants and diaries. But what do the words 'told people', as opposed to 'said' or 'stated', add here?

    Do they imply unreliability? If so, of news source, or on the part of Huma as speaker?

    It certainly breaches the crash-blossom ethos of headlinese to employ 2 words when one would do.

  20. Rodger C said,

    November 4, 2016 @ 9:36 am

    Perhaps "said" or "stated" could be interpreted as "talked with a reporter."

  21. Graeme said,

    November 5, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    True, 'stated' sounds formal. But "bla, blah" said she must be the broadest and commonest form of oral attribution.

  22. Eli Nelson said,

    November 6, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    @Geoff Nunberg:

    What's the correct parse for "I would never tell anyone stories about whom appeared in the New York Times"? I've been looking at it and I can't figure it out.

  23. unekdoud said,

    November 10, 2016 @ 8:30 am

    @Eli: I think it's supposed to mean "I would never tell anyone, if stories about him(anyone) appeared in the New York Times". "Tell" is used with just one object.

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