Archive for the ‘Ambiguity’ Category

The New Yorker on subsectivity

May 23, 2015

Michael Maslin in the latest (May 25th) New Yorker:


(You need to recognize from the setting that the creature the cowboy is faced with is a so-called prairie dog — not any kind of dog, but instead a kind of ground squirrel.)

The echo of “I’m not that kind of girl” adds to the humor.


Or what?

May 22, 2015

A Meg Biddle cartoon in the June 2015 Funny Times:


Yes-no questions with the tag or what? are regularly used to emphatically assert the truth of the questioned proposition. So

Is this a great country, or what?

has the effect of proclaiming that this is indeed a great country. But the question has at least one other reading, merely asking for an alternative answer to Is this a great country?, and that’s the reading Biddle is playing with in the cartoon.


Adj + N + N

May 17, 2015

Today’s Zippy dwells on a parsing ambiguity:

Two parsings for the Adj + N + N permanent laundry markers:

(1) Adj + [ N + N ] ‘laundry markers that are permanent’ (Griffy’s intent)

(2)  [ Adj + N ] + N ‘markers for permanent laundry’ (Zippy’s understanding)


A chiastic riddle

May 17, 2015

From Benita Bendon Campbell, a riddle and its answer:

I wondered about the source of the image and of the riddle. (Bonnie found this version on the Writer’s Circle Facebook group, with no indication of its earlier history.) The riddle has appeared with quite a collection of artwork (on ecards, in particular), none of it attributed, and some posters characterize it as “an old riddle”, but that just might mean that they recall it from when they were younger; we could be looking at the Antiquity Illusion here.


An attachment problem

May 16, 2015

Today’s One Big Happy:

Ruthie intends High Attachment for the adverb again, with the adverb modifying the VP with head feel, and that’s a possible parsing. But Low Attachment, with again modifying the VP with head smashing, is the default parsing, and that’s how Ruthie’s grandmother understands things.


May 8, 2015

Today’s One Big Happy:]

Once again, Ruthie seizes the wrong fork of an ambiguity: the waiter intends “condition how“, but Ruthie understands it as “manner how“.


The distraction of ambiguity

May 6, 2015

Today’s Scenes From a Multiverse:

The ambiguity in selling … drugs for … prostitutes  (which turns on the function of the PP for … prostitutes in the larger structure) briefly distracts the characters from the image-mong(er)ing that is their pressing concern, when it really isn’t important which of the readings is the correct one; either way, they’ve got a huge scandal that’s going to take a lot of media management. (more…)

fellow sisters

May 4, 2015

In the NYT Sunday Review 5/3/15, in “What Black Moms Know” by Yvonda Gault Caviness:

Thankfully, I am a black mom. Like many of my fellow sisters, I don’t have time for all that foolishness [about child-rearing].

I stumbled a bit on fellow sisters, though I understood that it was in no way contradictory; fellow here does not refer to a man or men, but to someone “sharing a particular activity, quality, or condition with someone or something: they urged the troops not to fire on their fellow citizens” (NOAD2). Still, the noun fellow is surely most frequently used for informal reference to a man or boy (there’s a fellow at the door), and this use can interfere with the (gender-neutral) ‘someone sharing an attribute’ use.



May 3, 2015

Caught on tv, in the NCIS episode “Dead and Unburied” (#4.5) (2006). The team is examining a murder scene, studying the carpet intently:

Dr. Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard [the medical examiner]: Looks like sisal. It’s a naturally stiff fiber woven from the leaf of the cactus plant. It doesn’t matt, trap dust, build static, makes it ideal for carpeting. Personally, I prefer a good shag. [Gibbs and McGee just look at him while Palmer grins like a loon]

Ducky uses the noun shag referring to a type of rug, but everyone else hears the nominalization of the verb shag ‘fuck’. Merriment ensues.


Point of view

May 2, 2015

A photo sent by a friend, with a note referring to “the man in the uniform behind the left shoulder” of Barack Obama:

There are two men in uniform right behind Obama; how are we to interpret “left shoulder” here? From Obama’s point of view (in which case the man in question is to the right of Obama in the photo)? Or from our point of view, looking at the photo?

The potential ambiguity can be avoided by saying “to the right/left of Obama in the photo”, but (as it turns out) my friend has a principled usage here.



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