Briefly noted 10/7/18: a scope ambiguity

From Robert Coren on Facebook today:

Headline in today’s Boston Globe: “Mormons required to spend less time in Sunday Services”. Wait, what? That seems like a strange requirement.
Turns out it means that the amount of time they’re required to spend in the services has been reduced.

The Globe is behind a paywall for me, so all I can see is that the head seems to have been edited to the unproblematic “Mormons to spend less time in Sunday Services”.

Still, the headline RC reports is of some interest as an example of a scope ambiguity, involving a modal condition (of requirement) and a change of state (in time spent on an activity).

What I said to RC:

A scope thing: either the modal condition (expressed by required) has scope over the state change (a decrease in time spent in some activity) OR the the state change has scope over the modal condition. The Globe intended the latter — a decrease in the amount of required time — but I find the former scoping — a requirement that the amount of time decrease — very easy to get, because required is the top verb in the headline.

There might already be a literature in formal semantics on cases like this, but I don’t know this literature (I appreciate formal semantics at second hand, rather than actually engaging in it). So I’ll pass this note on to a few formal semanticists who might be willing to comment on it.

2 Responses to “Briefly noted 10/7/18: a scope ambiguity”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Exchange on Facebook, slightly edited:

    Mike Pope: Is this the same phenomenon as the one that’s disambiguated by adding in order? As in these examples:

    (a) The method is required to support binary conversion.
    (b) The method is required in order to support binary conversion.

    Arnold Zwicky: I don’t think so. (a) is structurally ambiguous, according to whether the infinitival to support binary conversion is a sentential modifier of purpose or a complement of require within the VP. (in order, as in (b) picks out the purpose structure.)

    [added here:] The ambiguity in the posting is reminiscent of Neg[ation]-Q[uantifier] scope ambiguities, in things like

    (c) Everybody doesn’t like marshmallows.

    ‘it’s true of every person that they don’t like marshmallows; nobody likes marshmallows’ OR ‘it’s not the case that everybody likes marshmallows; some people don’t like marshmallows’. Sentence (c) isn’t *structurally* ambiguous (or lexically ambiguous, for that matter), but it’s still ambiguous. It’s all in the syntax-semantics interface.

  2. Barbara H Partee Says:

    Yes, there is!! And it’s fascinating! I can take this as homework. I hope I can do it tomorrow.

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