Ambiguity for leeches

Posted by Neil Copeland on Facebook and passed on by Mar Rojo, this article from the New Zealand Press, by Rachel Young, with the headline:

Is this NZ’s creepiest crawly?

and the subhead:

Rare land leeches have been found on several offshore islands, one of which is now headed to Te Papa [the museum in Wellington]

The ambiguity of the subhead elicited some discussion:  is it a land leech or an offshore island that’s headed to Te Papa? (Details below.)

The creature:

On the analysis of the original subhead: at first it looks like

(1) Rare land leeches have been found on several offshore islands, one of which is now headed to Te Papa

simply has a non-restrictive relative clause modifying several offshore islands (the nearest nominal, immediately preceding it.. But that’s preposterous. The intended interepretation is that what looks like a non-restrictive relative clause modifies the subject of the clause, rare land leeches. Where would that come from?

One possibility is that the original subhead has an extraposed relative clause, certainly something that’s well attested. There are several types of extraposed relatives; textbooks generally illustrate the phenomenon with extraposed restrictives, but non-restrictives occur as well. So we get:

(2a) Several people turned up late for the concert, some of whom had no tickets. [similar in structure to (1)]

as the extraposed variant of:

(2b) Several people, some of whom had no tickets, turned up late for the concert

Another possibility is that (1) is interestingly parallel to SPARs (subject predicational adjuncts requiring a referent for the missing subject), except that the adjunct has a subject. As I’ve posted here a number of times, clause-final SPARs very strongly want to “find” the required referent for the missing subject in the subject of the modified clause (rather than the closest nominal. A couple of nice examples in my 3/2/11 posting “Dangling advice”. My favorite is

(3) Last Sunday’s Observer reported on the young man missing from home in the US for four years: “Yesterday Shawn and his family appeared at their home-town school in Missouri to talk to reporters. Shawn walked on to the stage, festooned in well-wishing posters and blue and yellow balloons.” 

The nominal in (3) nearest to the clause-find past-participial SPAR is the stage, and that was the writer’s intention. But it’s hard not to read (3) as picking up the missing subject for the SPAR from the main-clause subject, Shawn.

I’m now suggesting the possibility that the clause-final non-restrictive relative in (1) is functiong as  a sentence adverbial — like a SPAR, but with an explicit subject, so that (1) picks up an antecedent for the relative pronoun which from the subject, rather than the closest nominal.

This account is highly speculative, but it does have the virtue of treating “zero pronouns”, as in SPARs, and explicit pronouns, as in (1) in parallel ways.

[Digression on the interpretation of (1). on Facebook, Mar Rojo treats (1) as merely potemtially ambiguous, with the effective interpretation being the one that makes sense in context. In fact, he quotes me on types of ambiguity:

“‘The POTENTIAL for ambiguity is not the same thing as EFFECTIVE ambiguity in context.’ — Arnold Zwicky”

But Neil Copeland wrote:

Both the intended meaning, and the ludicrous meaning of the sentence as it actually stands, hit me instantly and simultaneously.

This difference isn’t surprising; it’s well-known that people differ in the extent to which they rely on context vs. form in the interpretion of examples, at least in their initial responses.]

A finaldevelopment. (1) was the subhead as first published. If you look at the Press site now, you’ll get only an updated version, with the headline:

Rare leeches found on NZ islands

and the subhead:

Rare Discovery: The leech, from the Snares Islands, is being sent to Te Papa in Wellington to be put on display.

No more ambiguity issue.

One Response to “Ambiguity for leeches”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Well, I got lost in the grammatical details, but I didn’t know about land leeches, mostly island species around Asia. They have some delightful names, though, starting with the family name Haemadipsidae (type genus Haemadipsa), blood-drinkers (think dipsomania, deipnosophist) – look up Haemadipsidae in Wikipedia.

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