A momentary compound problem

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).

5 Responses to “A momentary compound problem”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    I was taught that “predatory lending” should be hyphenated, to avoid that exact problem.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To The Ridger: hmm … the nominal “predatory lending” wouldn’t need a hyphen when it stands alone as a NP, as in “Predatory lending should be punished.” But some style manuals do allow (or recommend) hyphenating adjective-noun combinations within larger compounds to avoid problems like those in “predatory lending bill”.

    Very few people seem to take this advice, however. There are examples of “predatory lending” + N all over the place, but it’s hard to find any examples with the punctuation “predatory-lending”.

  3. dw Says:

    Your post reminded me that the official name of Stanford University is “Leland Stanford Junior University”, leading to jokes about its being a “Junior University”.

  4. S.R. Pond Says:

    blog, blog, blog…
    “anti-predatory lending” clarifies the concept. As for construction of the law…
    Which comes first, the law or the behavior?

  5. The Ridger Says:

    I meant only in such cases as these, not when it stands alone.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: