Anaphoric ambiguity of the week

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From David Axe, "How Trump Could Bypass a Key Vaccine Safety Valve", Daily Beast 10/1/2020 [emphasis added]:

If the Trump administration tries to push out a novel coronavirus vaccine before it’s fully tested, there are three committees of independent experts who could stand in its way. […]

These committees—two in government and one in the private sector—keep tabs on vaccine-testing, sign off on new drugs and vaccines, and advise the government on how to deploy a new inoculation. But it remains to be seen just how much clout they have if the government decides to skirt science and rush out an Election Year miracle. […]

Of course, it’s possible the Trump administration doesn’t care about the controversy that might result from pushing a vaccine before it’s ready. Even if all three committees voted against a vaccine, the FDA might approve and distribute the vaccine, anyway. The administration has steadily been consolidating control over the vaccine-approval process, all while Trump continues to promise a vaccine before most experts expect one to be ready.

The problem is that the advisory committees mostly derive their authority from government agencies’ rules—and the same agencies can, with varying degrees of effort, change those rules. “The FDA and CDC advisory committees are that—advisory,” Lurie said. “There’s no requirement for them to follow them.”

That's Peter Lurie, President of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a former member of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Since this is Language Log, not Vaccine Safety Log, the point of the quotation is the tricky reference of the two instances of them in the bolded phrase at the end. It's obvious to a human reader that the meaning is something like "There's no requirement for the government agencies to follow the advisory committees", or maybe "… to follow the rules that the advisory committees derive their authority from".

This is a sort of double Winograd Schema example. Multiple pronoun puzzles are not uncommon — here are a few examples from COCA:

Kevin and I were ice skating, and he got all Tonya Harding on the rink manager when he told him he couldn't have snacks on the ice.
When God called Moses to be his agent to bring Israel out of Egypt, he told him, " See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh,
Rex said that he didn't understand, but Skywalker told him that even if he told him the truth, Rex would not believe him.



  1. Andrew Taylor said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 3:17 am

    My favourite example is verse 8 of Psalm 22, as used in a movement of Handel's Messiah: "He trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delight in him".

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 8:02 am

    This is a separate point, but the headline had already primed me for confusion, because it seems to be using the "safety valve" metaphor in an upside-down-and-backwards way. Typically, a "safety valve" in this sort of context is something that lets the key or senior decisionmaker override a standard rule or procedure that makes sense in the average case but is deemed in the specific context to be presenting an unjustified obstacle to a good outcome — i.e. the "safety valve" metaphor would be a good fit for the FDA leadership's ability to override a committee that was delaying getting a vaccine to market by refusing to give its blessing.

  3. Rose Eneri said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 8:41 am

    Any pronoun ambiguity involving God is easily remedied by capitalizing His pronouns. I went to Catholic schools and we always capitalized pronouns referring to God.

    "He trusted in God that He would deliver him; let Him deliver him, if He delight in him".

    I agree that the use of "safety valve" in the title is confusing. A physical safety valve is something that prevents an explosion by releasing pressure before an explosive amount builds up. I can't see a metaphorical sense that applies here.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    Rose: What if you want to talk about Jehovah and Jesus in the same sentence?

  5. Terry K. said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 11:27 am

    @Rose Eneri
    Any pronoun ambiguity involving God is easily remedied by capitalizing His pronouns. I went to Catholic schools and we always capitalized pronouns referring to God.

    No, that only works in writing. Not in speech and not in singing. And the quoted line is from a music work, meant to be sung, not read.

    I also consider it poor writing if you have to allow on the use of capitalizing "He" to indicate that the pronoun refers to God. I don't mean don't use that capitalization, but write in a way that makes sense without it, that would make sense read aloud.

  6. John Swindle said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 7:21 pm

    He trusted in God that they would like the hymn if they delight in him.

  7. Viseguy said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 7:29 pm

    Here are various translations of the verse in question:

    Many of them, to their credit, "disambiguate" (thank you, Wikipedia) the pronominal references, but I must say that in 60+ years of listening to The Messiah, I never once perceived any ambiguity in that locution.

  8. John Swindle said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 7:57 pm

    Handel's collaborator, Charles Jennens, is supposed to have relied primarily on the Book of Common Prayer (1662) for the psalm texts in Messiah. I don't have a copy of Book of Common Prayer and don't know how closely he followed it in this verse.

  9. John Swindle said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 8:53 pm

    In answer to my own question: pretty closely. Here's the verse in question from the psalter of the Book of Common Prayer 1662 as printed with modernized spelling by John Baskerville in 1762:

    He truſted in God, that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, if he will have him.

  10. Viseguy said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 10:36 pm

    But the point, as I understand it, is that it's easy for humans to parse such apparent ambiguities into their intended meanings, but much harder for artificially intelligent entities to do so. Would that it would be as easy for humans to parse the ambiguities around Covid vaccine safety, if and when we get there.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 2, 2020 @ 11:51 pm

    The idea that capitalization conventions can disambiguate the psalm verse in question might be called into question by e.g. the NKJV, which has it as “He trusted in the LORD, let Him rescue Him; Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” Since there is more than one Divine Person in existence (at least for those who accept the doctrine of the Trinity) and Divine Persons often interact with each other, it is thus possible to have more than one Divine Antecedent referred to by pronouns in the same discourse.

    This particular capitalization choice by the NKJV translators understands the first-person narrator of the psalm in question to be Christ, as can be seen by the opening: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" That's certainly one traditional view, but it's not uniformly shared. One non-aesthetic ground for disliking the capitalization of divine-referent pronouns (which I dislike on aesthetic grounds anyways) is that it requires one to take a definitive position on whether or not the referent of a particular pronoun is divine, and there are plenty of Bible passages where there's room for disagreement on that and/or whether the text is susceptible of multiple interpretations which point in different directions and ought perhaps to be allowed to coexist rather than compelling a binary/reductionist resolution (because of the need to capitalize or not-capitalize) about which is the One True Interpretation of the particular passage.

  12. JPL said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 4:12 am

    I would guess that the dominant interpretation (for human speakers) in this case would be that the two instances of "them" would be co-referential to "agencies" and "rules" respectively ("there's no requirement for the agencies to follow those rules"), rather than "agencies" and "committees" ("there's no requirement for the agencies to follow those committees"), due to the existence of a low-level schema (I mean one belonging to the English language rather than to a computer program) we could describe as something like [human agents – follow – rules], which I don't know if it is a selectional restriction, but it at least is an example of collocation; while the alternative schema, something like [agent – follow – goal] (inviting further analysis), where the "goal" position does not explicitly indicate "rules" or "leadership" or "authority" or a "maker of a path", (e.g., "there's no requirement for them to follow the committees' advice", which, if this were meant, should have been expressed explicitly) would, although it's grammatical, have less salience. Again, there's no problem with selectional restrictions, I don't think, but more a matter of collocation. Anyway, that's my reaction; others may have responded differently. (But maybe you were talking about the first "them", which at first I carelessly and mistakenly interpreted as co-referential with "committees".)

    WRT the last example, even if you had, "… but Skywalker told him that even if he told him the truth, he would not believe him", would probably be interpreted correctly by a native speaker, even though it violates the principle of maintaining parallels in interpreting order in constructions. (The alternative, "… even if he [Rex] told him [Skywalker] the truth, he Skywalker] would not believe him [Rex]" does seem to violate normal expectations.)

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