Talk:Syntactic ambiguity

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More ambiguous sentences?[edit]

I enjoy these, is there a list or something of that kind on Wikipedia? -Iopq 07:39, 9 January 2007 (UTC)

You might like these: List_of_linguistic_example_sentences

"Which of the three?" But couldn't that also imply four people?[edit]

That is: "Zechariah, son of Berekiah, son of Iddo, and the prophet"?

 - The prophet being Berekiah's wife? Good point. -md

"Sally" Statement[edit]

Technically, doesn't "Sally can not go to the movies" ONLY imply that she is capable of not going to the movies? I always thought that there was a distinct difference between "can not" and "cannot": the latter being incapable of doing something, the former being capable of not doing something (sort of a litote for being able to do something). What do you think? --LoganK 13:19, 7 September 2007 (UTC)

I entirely agree in terms of English orthographic (or really typographic) conventions. But as a spoken utterance, it seems to me that "can not" and "cannot" are not normally audibly distinct (unless, that is, one is deliberately speaking clearly, e.g., if one is speaking over a bad mobile phone connection). Perhaps we could restore the example, if it is qualified as ambiguous only if spoken aloud? RobinJ 22:25, 28 October 2007 (UTC)


What about the effect of punctuation, or lack of it ? Is this appropriate to discuss here ? The distinction is much clearer in the written form than in the spoken form.


"What's that in the road ahead ?" vs. "What's that in the road, a head ?"

"What's this thing called love ?" vs. "What's this thing called, love ?" Organhead (talk) 13:19, 22 April 2008 (UTC)

Actually the distinction is equally clear in both spoken and written language. In spoken English, the intonation and pausing patterns are vastly different for the examples you mention above. Specifically, in the first example of each pair, your pitch will go up on the last content word ("road" and "love") and then quickly back down, and the whole sentence will flow together. In the second example of each pair, the stuff before the comma follows the same pattern (up on "road" and "called" then quickly back down), and then it goes up on the question part of the sentence, and you might even pause in between, in the same place as the comma in the written version. Listen to yourself say it, and you will hear what I mean.
These examples are due to lexical ambiguities (in the case of "love") or phonetic similarities (in the case of "ahead" / "a head") interacting with different syntactic possibilities. Since they are represented differently both in the written and spoken forms (through punctuation or intonation), they are not examples of true ambiguity even though they use the same set of words or sounds to convey two separate meanings.
Guypersonson (talk) 06:23, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

Merger - Amphiboly[edit]

Should this be merged with amphiboly? 01:26, 8 June 2009 (UTC)

No, it most definitely should not. Syntactic ambiguity is a phenomenon of natural language which is actually much more interesting than the current article makes clear. If I weren't so busy writing linguistics papers I might fix that, but I guarantee there are piles of literature in linguistics devoted to syntactic ambiguity. It seems that amphiboly is a similar phenomenon but the term seems to be reserved for poetry and the humanities. This term is widely used in linguistics and has its own subfield of study equally as valid as that of amphiboly. Guypersonson (talk) 06:29, 14 December 2009 (UTC)

See Czech Wikipedia[edit]

I've written an article cz:Strukturální dvojsmysl, which is probably simmilar to yours. (Especially with the phrases of type "They are hunting dogs".) See it and maybe you find these simmilarities. Then you can add it to your External links. Thank you. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 16:52, 20 April 2010 (UTC)

You needn't worry with it. It's already done. Thank you.

Meaning of quote from the song 'Lola'[edit]

The article gives three explanations for the line:

  "I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola. (can mean "Lola and I are both glad I'm a man", or "I'm glad Lola and I are both men",
  or "I'm glad I'm a man, and Lola is also a man")"

However, in my opinion the real meaning is a fourth one: "I'm glad I'm a man, and Lola is happy that he's a man, too", which is pretty obvious from the rest of the song. Virtualdog (talk) 06:27, 27 July 2012 (UTC)

example according to xkcd[edit]

Does this really need it's own section? I like xkcd as much as the next guy but it seems really out of place. Same thing to a lesser extent with the Aristotle example.-- (talk) 05:05, 1 August 2012 (UTC)

i agree, it's an unnecessary addition by a fan. (talk) 23:10, 1 August 2012 (UTC)

How does it seem out of place? It's a valid example and frankly the xkcd example is far easier for me to understand than the Aristotle example. PickettJosef (talk) 13:32, 2 August 2012 (UTC)

It seems out of place because all the other examples are lumped together on top, but the XKCD one and the Aristotle one are in their own seperate section. It seems like it implies they are more important or more illustrative than the other examples.-- (talk) 04:03, 10 March 2013 (UTC)

Who has the telescope?[edit]

John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope. (Who has the telescope? John or the man on the mountain, or the mountain?)

I'd have to say John or the mountain for had it been the man it could have read "John saw the man with the telescope on the mountain." (talk) 15:57, 5 August 2012 (UTC)

Validity of examples[edit]

Are some examples not pushing it? Like "Eye Drops Off Shelf". While I personally love this example and think it's hilarious, it isn't realistically ambiguous. The three interpretations are all valid, but only one of them is even remotely plausible. - (talk) 16:28, 5 December 2012 (UTC)

Dogs must be carried on the escalator[edit]

I have always been amused by the sign "Dogs must be carried on the escalator", as seen in some London Underground stations. But it's not syntactic ambiguity, the two interpretations of it involve the same syntax. Maproom (talk) 20:57, 7 July 2014 (UTC)

Locally ambiguous sentences[edit]

What does "The cat jumped over the fence stretched" mean? It does not appear to be standard American English, though. My guess is that "The cat THAT jumped over the fence stretched" is the intended meaning, but when "that" is added the sentence is not ambiguous. PubliusFL (talk) 18:39, 8 March 2015 (UTC)

Models - Reanalysis model[edit]

  "The woman with the dog that had the parasol was brown."
  "The dog with the woman that had the parasol was brown."

The paragraph below these seems to imply that they are not globally ambiguous. But aren't they? In either case, the dog could be the one with the parasol or the woman could. I prefer to interpret that as a dog with a parasol. Vectorjohn (talk) 19:49, 7 May 2015 (UTC)

The sentence Competition-based models hold that differing syntactic analyses rival each other during syntactic ambiguity resolution is itself a crash blossom. Furthermore, what in hell does this gobbledygook actually mean? Nuttyskin (talk) 19:20, 16 May 2018 (UTC)

Edits of this day[edit]

Please note, in doing the edits of this day, as extreme as they might seem, essentially no preexisting content has been deleted. It has simply been re-structured, so all sentences and paragraphs covering the same topics are together, a review of the article for its stated sources was conducted, and then the egregious issues of each section were noted.

After evaluating the content's sourcing, I marked the article as being in need of expert attention, in linguistics in particular, because it is an article almost completely derived from a editors WP:OR (prohibited "original research") — being ling tracts of content or examples, drawn from editor expertise, rather than from secondary source discussions of the subject. This is stated because there was, prior to this day's edit, essentially no content in the article that is properly sourced:

  • the content of the lead, which includes definitions and statements related to scope do not appear in the body, and are unsourced;
  • The Definition and history section section, which was drawn together based on defining sentences that were earlier scattered about, are jargon filled, and taken from book sources without page numbers, or (in the best case), taken from legal citations whose generality is not clear;
  • The Forms and Examples section are both unsourvced, and appear to be entirely editor WP:Original Research;
  • The Headlines section, sourced entirely from primary sources, again appears to be collections based on editor experience, rather than stated from secondary sources;
  • The Other venues (constructed from the previous Humor and Advertising section, is likewise unsourced OR, and in terms of prosody, entirely sub-par with regard to the objectivity of its writing;
  • the Models section, as noted, is entirely based on two primary sources from the same research group/collaboration, and as a review of one research groups perspectives, represents issues of NPOV and over-detailing;
  • the In children section, while better in terms of breadth of coverage, nonetheless still presents only WP editor's views of the primary literature, and so is, again, WP:OR.

The sources that now appear, as a result of the revision, are now all as complete as I could make them—though I focused on the non-newspaper sources (since the newspapers are all WP:OR examples, and should be swapped for examples appearing in secondary sources like textbooks and scholarly reviews.

So this current article, with its lack of anything put primary sources throughout, and the myriad of editorial OR-statements based on the primary sources, is at present, today's efforts notwithstanding, still a poor, non-authoritative WP article. I made it as good as it can be, on short order, by completing many sources, adding further sourced content, and tagging every cribbed or unattributed sentence. Le Prof. (talk) 17:05, 6 November 2015 (UTC)

Completed 8 more citations, adding authors, dates, URLs, etc., and using common markup format. Le Prof Leprof 7272 (talk) 01:25, 8 November 2015 (UTC)
Did you accidentally add a million citation needed tags as well? Oops, I revered them. Try again. (talk) 17:19, 12 November 2015 (UTC)
I like the 'revered' (rather than 'reversed') :-))) (talk) 16:05, 10 April 2016 (UTC)

Landmine claims dog arms company. Another interpretation.[edit]

A dog, whose military jargon job description is "landmine claims" (after successfully smelling and finding them,) arms a company (perhaps with the claimed and reusable landmines.) Ecstatist (talk) 14:10, 9 December 2015 (UTC)

'France outlaws paying for sex'[edit]

Two days ago this short headline appeared on the BBC's online news site, and I misread it as meaning that outlaws in France were paying for sex - big deal, I thought, where's the news value in this? It turned out to mean that the French parliament had just adopted a law banning paid prostitution. Perhaps this isn't the place to add new examples, since they're so numerous - but I did like it, because I was personally taken in by it. The recent common use of country names ('France') where adjectives ('French') would be more grammatically correct ('Belgium government', 'Japan earthquake') makes it easier for this to be misinterpreted. (talk) 16:05, 10 April 2016 (UTC)

Naughty ghost train![edit]

Yet another example: a fairly simple one, but surprising that it slipped through: Brighton man stabbed during robbery by ‘ghost train’ (Brighton and Hove News, 9 October 2017). Superbly, the first sentence of the report repeats the ambiguous sentence structure! Hassocks5489 (Floreat Hova!) 10:44, 12 October 2017 (UTC)


Is the existence of syntactic ambiguity a linguistic universal? or say, does it exist in all natural languages that have been studied?--EPN-001GF IZEN བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས། 08:27, 16 March 2018 (UTC)

Failed verification on Landmine Claims Dog Arms Company[edit]

The linked headline at now reads "Landmine Claims Dog UK Arms Firm." A much worse example for this article. I wouldn't doubt that the headline in this article was once accurate and the Guardian changed it sometime in the last 16 years, but I couldn't find any evidence that this happened. This isn't my strongest area of research so maybe you can find something verifiable.

Instead of a failed verification tag, I just moved the citation to hidden text for now, because I don't think it necessarily NEEDS a source. Other examples are unsourced. The example would be stronger with a good source, if possible, but removing it at this point seems like a mistake. If readers can provide ample sourced examples of equally interesting/entertaining headlines, this could perhaps be revisited. My thoughts on the matter anyway Ninjalectual (talk) 20:15, 25 May 2018 (UTC)