The editorial “Toward Fair Lending” in today’s New York Times begins:
The predatory lending bill that passed the House on Thursday is less than what is needed …
I had a moment of right-branching parsing of predatory lending bill, as
predatory + [ lending + bill ]
(saying that some bill about lending is predatory), though I quickly realized that this interpretation was absurd and that the intended parsing was left-branching:
[ predatory + lending ] + bill
(referring to some bill about predatory lending, that is to say, about lending in a predatory fashion).
I’m not faulting the editorial writer for producing a potentially ambiguous expression (though “the bill about predatory lending” would have been clearer, at the expense of an extra word); potential ambiguities are everywhere, after all. Probably most readers moved right over “predatory lending bill” without a twinge.
Right-branching vs. left-branching has been in the literature for about 50 year, at first in connection with the idea that right-branching structures were easier to process than left-branching ones, at least for English speakers, though the topic was quickly complicated by the observation that some languages are rich in right-branching constructions (and were consequently labeled “right-branching languages”), while others are rich in left-branching constructions (and were consequently labeled “left-branching languages”).
In English, some NP examples can go either way out of context: small children’s school ‘school for small children’ (left-branching) or ‘children’s school that is small’ (right-branching). But even out of context, many examples massively favor one or the other parsing (because of real-world plausibility): young children’s school ‘school for young children’ (left-branching), new children’s school ‘children’s school that is new’ (right-branching).