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Reader P.S. notes that it's possible to find 206 countries using Wikipedia

[link to NYT post]


  1. Faldone said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

    I had to read the lead in about Reader P. S. to realize that the hed was ambiguous. I will admit that you don't have to work as hard to misunderstand it as you do for some of the "arrested with gun" versions in that thread.

  2. Brett said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

    @Faldone: On the contrary, I read the hed before noticing P.S.'s remark, and I immediately latched onto the unintended reading. The correct reading didn't dawn on me until I had read the whole lede (although I wasn't really trying very hard to puzzle out what the hed was trying to convey).

  3. Circe said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    @Brett: Well, until I read your comment, I was thinking that they missed the words "attackers from" to lead to this disaster. If not for your comment, I would never have gotten to the intended reading (Researchers find [25 countries (are) using surveillance software])

  4. Jeff Carney said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    I totally crashed.

  5. cs said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    Fugitive hacker caught with surveillance software.

  6. Sam said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

    I saw an email today with the subject "Amazing Whale Encounters Video by [school name] dad [John Doe]." Thank goodness for zero-derivation.

  7. David Morris said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

    If Columbus or Cook had had surveillance software or Wikipedia, they could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble.

  8. John Roth said,

    March 22, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

    Oddly enough, I had to look to find the unintended meaning. I suppose it's because my default is that the PP attaches to the immediately preceding noun phrase rather than the more distant one, and there's nothing semantically unlikely about that reading.

  9. Zizoz said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 2:51 am

    I had to read the bit of the article shown to figure out the intended meaning, but I was probably influenced by the lead-in to misinterpret the headline in the first place.

  10. Sarah said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 3:36 am

    I only saw the intended meaning which was totally clear to me and had to think quite hard to work out what this was doing in Language Log.

  11. R. Sabey said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 3:47 am

    Like Jeff Carney, I totally crashed, but the issue for me is not what the PP attaches to. After I read "find" + NP, I thought the NP was the direct object of "find". Here's an example of where a sentence is much clearer when a subsidiary clause is introduced by "that" than when it isn't.

  12. RolyH said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 6:19 am

    Like Sarah I had to look at this several times and do some thinking to come up with the "wrong" meaning, but once I saw it it was very obvious. Something like looking at those curious perspective drawings that the brain can interpret in two differentways.

  13. John Roth said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    There may be a priming effect here with the introductory sentence. I'm pretty sure I didn't notice it until after I read the headline, or I'd have noticed the ambiguity right away.

  14. Slalon said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 10:16 am

    I got the unintended meaning right away. I thought it was going to be an article about how bad surveillance systems are, because they only know of the existence of 25 countries.

  15. Earl said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 11:24 am

    The old squinting modifier strikes again, e.g., "She said in the office she had a copy of the map."

  16. Ray Dillinger said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    I got the intended meaning (only) at first. My initial response was 'why is this news?' because bluntly I'd be astonished if there were *ANY* country on earth not using surveillence software. It was not until a beat or two had gone by, and I thought, 'hey wait a minute, this is Language Log not EFF,' that I went back to look for (and immediately notice) the ambiguity.

    In this case the unintended meaning is nearly nonsense, because there are very few classes of surveillence software that would have any utility for finding countries; furthermore, we live in a world where all the countries are known (I omit secret nations posited by conspiracy theorists — there is no credible evidence).

    Although Yakko Warner's country song could use an update or two …

  17. Ellen K. said,

    March 23, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    I agree with Ray Dillinger that the correct reading of the headline doesn't seem like news. Perhaps that's why, after getting the wrong reading first, I just could not figure out what the headline could mean (the wrong reading not making sense as a correct reading) until I actually read some of the article, where we get more details.

  18. spherical said,

    March 25, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    My first thought was 'Well done, The Onion'.

  19. Mike said,

    March 25, 2013 @ 9:28 am

    It HAS marched on! Twitter's "who to follow" is now "WHOM to follow". Thank God!

  20. Faldone said,

    March 25, 2013 @ 10:27 am

    I'll believe this is a step forward when we reinstate ye as the 2nd person, plural, nominative pronoun and thou-thee-thy/thine, as 2nd person singular pronouns.

  21. Mike G said,

    March 25, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Like Ray Dillinger, I saw the intended meaning on first pass because I didn't think of "countries" as being what gets found with surveillance techniques. If the text had been "Researchers Find 25 Insurgent Cells Using Surveillance Software" then I would have been perplexed.

  22. Martin J Ball said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 6:49 am

    Have our Linguists run out of ideas, or is there a computer glitch? No updates for 3 days! …

  23. Faldone said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    I just noticed that applying the correct reading of the hed to reader P.S.'s comment produces a reading as likely as the correct reading of the hed. I.e., by some undefined means it would be possible to find 206 countries that use Wikipedia.

  24. Osman said,

    March 26, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    Is this grammatically wrong or a syntactic ambiguity?

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