Archive for the ‘Language processing’ Category

Slifted allegations

October 28, 2009

In the letters section of the New York Times on October 25 (in the Week in Review section), readers commented on conflicts between the public’s right to know and the rights of those involved in legal proceeedings. The last letter accused the Times (and other news media) of subverting the presumption of innocence, via the syntax of the sentences the paper uses to report charges (involving a construction known in the syntactic literature as Slifting).

Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the Times, then explained why journalists sometimes chose Slifting, but conceded that the letter-writer had a point.

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A momentary compound problem

May 9, 2009

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).