Comparative ambiguities

An ecard featuring a linguist:

He loves ambiguity more than most people love ambiguity? He loves ambiguity more than he loves most people? Or both?

From a Language Log posting of mine (“Textbook ambiguities”, 4/4/08):

In general, the reduced comparative

X Vs Y more than Z

can be understood in either of two ways:

‘X Vs Y more than Z Vs Y’

‘X Vs Y more than X Vs Z’.

Out of context, and with no real-world considerations to guide you, you can’t tell which interpretation is intended, as in textbook-style examples like

Kim likes Terry more than Sandy.

but in context, and with considerations of plausibility taken into account, there is rarely a problem.

This is a case of a systematic ambiguity in a whole class of expressios; both interpretations are in principle available, although quite often one is preposterous (or at least unlikely) in the real world. The only way to make the examples unambiguous in principle (rather than in practice) is to give up on brevity; clarity can be bought at the cost of repeating some words.


One Response to “Comparative ambiguities”

  1. the ridger Says:

    And of course the howling about “I like Terry more than her/she” completely ignores how easily we all deal with “more than Sandy”…

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