Two recent One Big Happy strips in which Ruthie grapples with language and its uses:
Pretty Rico and telephonic conventions. #1 is the more complex strip. The easy part is Ruthie’s misinterpretation of Puerto Rico as pretty Rico — another case where she reinterprets an unfamiliar expression in terms familiar to her. The tricky part is where the caller asks, “Is this a child?”, using demonstrative this on the telephone to refer to the recipient of the call: in the telephonic context (and not generally otherwise), “Is this a child?” conveys ‘Are you a child?’
Ruthie seems not to have picked up this piece of conversational convention, but she has learned a related convention, of identifying oneself on the phone (in the U.S. at least) by the formula This is X (conveying ‘I am X’). Armed with this knowledge, she takes the question Is this X? to be just the interrogative version of This is X, thus asking whether the caller is X: she takes “Is this a child?” to be asking ‘Am I a child?’
So clever. And so wrong.
Breaking news. #2, in contrast, turns on a relatively straightforward ambiguity, in the verb break. Two senses from NOAD2:
[state-change sense] separate or cause to separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock, or strain
[hot-news sense] (of news or a scandal) suddenly become public [especially in the formula breaking news ‘information that has just now become public’, with breaking as a PRP verb form modifying news]
What Ruthie is announcing is indeed brèaking néws in the hot-news sense, but what she intends to be announcing is bréaking nèws (with the N + N compound breaking news ‘news about breaking’, with state-change break).