Annals of ambiguity

« previous post | next post »

Michelle Goldberg, "Fifty Shades of Orange", NYT 12/22/2017:

At a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Donald Trump, as is his custom, called on his appointees to publicly praise him. In a performance that would have embarrassed the most obsequious lackey of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Vice President Mike Pence delivered an encomium to his boss, who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest, absorbing abasement as his due.

Who was absorbing the abasement, "Vice President Mike Pence" or "his boss"?

Caleb Downs, "6-year-old boy killed after deputies opened fire in Schertz identified", 12/22/2017.

Who was identified, the boy or the deputies?

The first example illustrates the ambiguous interpretation of participial phrases, here "absorbing abasement as his due". There's a prescriptive rule that such phrases should modify the subject of the associated clause, which is meant to avoid things like "Rich and creamy, your guests will never guess that this pie is light". Geoff Pullum has argued persuasively that the principles involved here are more a matter of communicative etiquette than grammaticality: "Dangling etiquette", 12/13/2003; "Does it really matter if it dangles", 11/20/2010.

But in this case there are two possibilities for the associated clause, "Mike Pence delivered an encomium" and "who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest". So there's a syntactic ambiguity here, namely whether the participial phrase is part of the relative clause "who sat …" or the main clause "Mike Pence delivered …".

The second example ("6-year-old boy killed after deputies opened fire in Schertz identified") depends on the headlinese omission of "was" or "were" after "deputies", which leaves us in suspense as to the subject of "identified".

Both examples show that phrasal attachment ambiguity is not limited to prepositional phrases, whose attachment problems have been illustrated in past LLOG posts like these:

"PP attachment is hard", 2/20/2013
"PP attachment ambiguity of the week", 2/14/2015
"PP attachment ambiguity of the month", 6/22/2016

The obligatory screenshot for the first example:

And for the second example:



  1. Terry Hunt said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 4:34 am

    For me, the "identified" can only refer to the boy. If it referred to the deputies, a "who" would surely also be required after "deputies" since ". . . deputies opened fire in Schertz [were] identified" is not permissible even in Headlinese.

  2. Breffni said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 4:48 am

    I'm having trouble seeing the ambiguity in the second example. Wouldn't there have to be a 'who' after 'deputies' ('deputies who opened fire') to make them the subject of '[were] identified'?

  3. Breffni said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 4:52 am

    (sorry, hadn't seen Terry's comment)

  4. ardj said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 6:04 am

    I have no problem with the Trump example: he was absorbing the abasement of his vice-p. It may be a slightly weird way of putting it, but then it is a slightly weird thing to do.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 6:49 am

    I disagree with Terry Hunt and Breffni about who being required if the deputies are the referent, but I think a comma would be necessary.

  6. Peter Berry said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 6:55 am

    The second example isn't formally ambiguous (I agree "identified" can only refer to the boy in the absence of "who"), but the syntax is so abstruse that I found it easier to believe there was an error. The perceived ambiguity comes from this tension between a syntax that I find so unidiomatic as to be imperceptible, and the possibility of a mistake.

    As for the Trump/Pence example, whenever I read "who V, Ving", I can only understand those two clauses as having the same subject. If anyone is absorbing anything in this sentence, it can only (syntactically) be Trump. I could accept Pence as "Ving" if the preceding comma is omitted: "Vice President Mike Pence delivered an encomium to his boss who sat across the table with arms folded over his chest, absorbing abasement as his due."

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 7:04 am

    Agreed. For me, "6-year-old boy killed after deputies opened fire in Schertz identified" contains no ambiguities.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 10:18 am

    I find myself wanting to read "Schertz identified" as a noun phrase, though that makes no sense, because the "boy (was) killed" garden path precludes "boy (was) identified".

  9. Robert Coren said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    At first I read "absorbing abasement as his due" as a weird error for "absorbing adulation…", but then I decided that it meant that Trump regarded the self-abasement of Pence as his (Trump's) due.

  10. ===Dan said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    I think the headline is trying to do too much in any event. If it's reporting the death of the boy, then the identification is not really needed in the headline. If it's a followup story, then there's too much information. If the story is about the identification, then why not "Victim identified in Schertz shooting." Maybe that's not catchy enough for people who weren't aware of the tragedy. "6-year-old identified in fatal Schertz shooting." But "there was a shooting by Schertz deputies, and a 6-year-old boy was killed, and now we know his name" seems like too much to cram into a headline. When a sentence gets too busy but the headline writer wants to be economical with words, it won't be pretty.

  11. Martha said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

    I agree with Terry Hunt et al about the second one.

    The first one, though, that's all messed up, to me. I think the intention is that "absorbing abasement as his due" is referring to Trump, but to me, "absorbing abasement" means "experiencing abasement," not something like "consuming someone else's abasement." Just like in Robert Coren's suggestion "absorbing adulation" would mean "experiencing/receiving adulation."

  12. 번하드 said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    Well, that one got me:
    "Texas police fatally shoot 6-year-old, unarmed woman"

  13. 번하드 said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    Sorry for having omitted details:

    Short quote:
    "Sheriff’s deputies in San Antonio, Texas fatally shot a woman being pursued for multiple alleged crimes Friday night. As she was attempting to break into a home, a stray bullet from the officers struck and a killed a 6-year-old boy who was home early from holiday break."

    I also made a screenshot, but see no way to attach it here?
    Please contact me by email if I can submit it as an attachment.

    Cheers and happy holidays to everybody from sunny Munich.

  14. Levantine said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

    번하드, the comma there is replacing the word "and", which it often does in American headlinese.

  15. 번하드 said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 3:56 pm


    Thank you, that's what I thought, too, but that headline still had made me curious enough to click through. Maybe intended:)
    Still, it *feels* weird. For me, yes, the comma was a hint, but the correct parse only got triggered by the dissonance 6-yowoman.
    Assume it had been "Texas police fatally shoot 6-year-old, unarmed boy"

  16. ===Dan said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 5:24 pm

    I'd have no problem parsing '….fatally shoot unarmed woman, 6-year-old' though.

  17. BZ said,

    December 26, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    To me the first example is clear from context. The second example is genuinely ambiguous, but I noticed the ambiguity only after reading it several times interpreting as the intended meaning.

  18. Paul Mulshine said,

    December 26, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

    That reminds me of a similarly awful headline I saw in a local paper:

    Man wanted in robbery
    and murder case caught

RSS feed for comments on this post