Scope ambiguity of the week

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A recent NYT headline seems like the premise for a particularly dark dystopian movie: Emily Oster, "Only Children Are Not Doomed", NYT 4/27/2020. A sort of cross between 12 Monkeys and Lord of the Flies? No:

The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of confusion, but it also may bring into focus a question many parents (or expectant parents) ask: What is the right number of kids for my family? Quarantine or not, having siblings shapes one’s experiences and development. On balance, is this for good or for ill? […]

Overall, when it comes to what economists call success, having siblings simply does not seem to matter.

But what about the awkward only child? The data has largely rejected that idea for decades. One 1987 review article, which summaries 140 studies, found some evidence of more “academic motivation” among only children, but no differences on personality traits like extroversion. In other words, although you might expect a built-in playmate makes a kid more social, the data doesn’t bear that out.

The obligatory screenshot:

[h/t Andrew Gaylard]


  1. John Shutt said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 6:32 am

    The interpretation of "only children" as plural of "only child" is so unobtrusive as an option, not only did it not occur to me on first reading, but after I'd read this entire LL post I still didn't know what scope was referred to, went back to the top, and then it still took a few seconds to figure it out. Perhaps the trouble is that "only child" isn't often pluralized (like The Lone Gunmen).

  2. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 10:02 am

    It would have been so easy to write "The only child is…"

  3. rosie said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 10:46 am

    It seems to me that what's ambiguous is not scope but the meaning of "only". It's an ambiguity of meaning. "Scope" suggests syntax.

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 1:12 pm

    I had the same thought as Rosie. There's a novel by Alison Lurie called "Only Children". Even without a negative to introduce scope ambiguities, the title has at least three interpretations (and by the end of the novel I still wasn't entirely sure which of them – or how many of them – the author intended): (1) children with no siblings; (2) no characters (in the story) except children; (3) characters who, though grown up, are essentially still children (paraphrasable as "they are but children"). In the novel, (1) definitely applies, and (2) is definitely factually incorrect, but if you apply (3) you could get (2) as well.

    That said, I had the same trouble with the headline that MYL had.

  5. Daniel said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    I've been reading too much virus stuff, so I was primed to think it was an exaggerated statement on the relative risk of death from covid across different age groups.

  6. Martha said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 4:12 pm

    My initial parsing was correct, but similar to Daniel, I thought it was going to be about how only children (children without siblings) are less susceptible to covid.

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 6:45 pm

    Not a scope ambiguity.

    It's just the idiomatic phrase 'only child' (with 'only' having been made an adjective) that causes the ambiguity, alone with the fact that that phrase is hardly seen in the plural, causing the other interpretation to spring to mind more readily even though it would be strange especially as a headline.

    k_over_hbarc at

  8. Viseguy said,

    April 29, 2020 @ 10:46 pm

    Being an only child, I was only able to understand "only children" in the unintended, dystopian sense. ("The Only Child Is Not Doomed" would have been clearer.) In this my seventieth year, I care not about what some parents, or other parents, say. I'm slightly curious about whether I tend to prove or disprove the data. Not curious enough, however, to read the article.

  9. Leo said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 2:23 am

    As an editor, I would have made it "Only-children are not doomed". A little punctuation can go a long way.

  10. Arthur Baker said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 6:07 am

    Trying to think of a snappy new adjective to describe an only child, but the best I can do is siblingless, which is a bit clumsy. Improvements, anyone?

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 6:25 am

    Not in the OED, but I like it nonetheless : oneling.

  12. Rodger C said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 7:00 am

    The sub-headline contains "singletons." I've heard this, but rarely.

  13. ~flow said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 9:09 am

    German has Einzelkinder, so—Singular children? Oneling is great too. Twillings, Thrillings, Fourlings, Fiflings? or Fivlings?

  14. John Lawler said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 1:37 pm

    I'm amazed that nobody has mentioned that the ambiguity is strictly artificial, caused by the poor user interface provided by English orthography. In speech, the headline would be unambiguous, since only children the fixed phrase is stressed differently. So this is another bug in any syntax (or semantics) that locates its origin in written, instead of spoken, language. Sapir is turning over in his grave.

  15. ktschwarz said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 4:48 pm

    "Only" involves negation, since it means "nothing except this". But what is negated: the existence of siblings, or the survival of everybody except children? I think that's what the post means by scope ambiguity.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    April 30, 2020 @ 5:28 pm

    Except that I don't think it does mean that in 'only child': the 'nothing but this' meaning would be 'X is an only child' = 'X is nothing but a child', which is not even allowed in modern English. Clearly it's abstracted from something like "the only child (in the family)".

    I agree with John Lawler that this has to be counted as some deficiency in the English writing system – though a hyphen would get the point across 'only-child' is not, I think, an acceptable form. If there were any other similar phrase with 'only', a similar ambiguous (in writing) sentence could easily be constructed.

  17. ktschwarz said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 4:11 am

    To clarify: I didn't mean to say "only" could be substituted directly by "nothing except", but rather, the sentence (or implication) could be rephrased as "there is no other X (in some context)". There is no other child in the family.

    For sure, this is a great example of a sentence that is ambiguous in writing but not speech, especially since the difference in stress is easy to describe.

  18. GH said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 4:17 am

    I propose solebegotten.

  19. Rodger C said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 7:12 am


  20. Philip Taylor said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 11:14 am

    "Unigenit" suggests to me someone who has had a unilateral orchi[d]ectomy !

  21. monscampus said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 9:06 pm

    Wouldn't solebegotten suggest conception after a fish supper?
    Anyway, an only child in one family says nothing about more children begotten with other partners?
    @Philip Taylor
    Oneling sounds like the perfect solution… And morelings in the long run?

  22. KevinM said,

    May 2, 2020 @ 11:59 am

    @Philip Taylor, Rodger C. Although technically, I guess nearly everyone is unigenital.

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