Syntactic Ambiguity

Sentences With Multiple Possible Meanings

A joke using syntactic ambiguity
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In English grammar, syntactic ambiguity (also called structural ambiguity or grammatical ambiguity) is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words, as opposed to lexical ambiguity, which is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word. The intended meaning of a syntactically ambiguous phrase can generally—although not always—be determined by the context of its use.

How Ambiguity Leads to Misunderstanding

Syntactic ambiguity generally results from poor word choice. If care is not used when selecting phrases that taken in a connotative rather than a denotative context may have more than one meaning, or if the sentences in which they're used are not properly constructed, the results can often be confusing for readers or listeners. Here are some examples:

  • The professor said on Monday he would give an exam. This sentence means either that it was on Monday that the professor told the class about the exam or that the exam would be given on Monday.
  • The chicken is ready to eat. This sentence either means the chicken is cooked and can be eaten now or the chicken is ready to be fed.
  • The burglar threatened the student with the knife. This sentence either means that a knife-wielding burglar threatened a student or the student a burglar threatened was holding a knife.
  • Visiting relatives can be boring. This sentence either means that the act of visiting one's relatives can lead to boredom or that visiting relatives can sometimes make for less than scintillating company.

Using Speech Cues to Decipher Syntactic Ambiguity

In "Cognitive Psychology," authors M. Eysenck and M. Keane tell us that some syntactic ambiguity occurs at a "global level," meaning entire sentences can be open to two or more possible interpretations, citing the sentence, "They are cooking apples," as an example.

The ambiguity is whether the word "cooking" is being used as an adjective or a verb. If it's an adjective, "they" refers to the apples and "cooking" identifies the type of apples being discussed. If it's a verb, "they" refers to the people who are cooking the apples.

The authors go on to say that listeners can figure out which meaning is implied in spoken sentences "by using prosodic cues in the form of stress, intonation, and so on." The example they cite here is the ambiguous sentence: "The old men and women sat on the bench." The men are old, but are the women also old?

They explain that if the women sitting on the bench are not elderly, when the word "men" is spoken it will be relatively long in duration, while "the stressed syllable in 'women' will have a steep rise in speech contour." If the women on the bench are also old, these cues will not be present.

Syntactic Ambiguity in Humor

Syntactic ambiguity is not usually something one strives for in clear communication, however, it does have its uses. One of the most entertaining is when double meanings are applied for comedic purposes. Ignoring the accepted context of a phrase and embracing an alternative meaning often ends in a laugh.

"One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know."
—Groucho Marx
  • The ambiguity here is who was in the pajamas, Groucho or the elephant? Groucho, answering the question in the opposite way of expectation, gets his laugh.
"A lady with a clipboard stopped me in the street the other day. She said, 'Can you spare a few minutes for cancer research?' I said, 'All right, but we're not going to get much done.'"
—English comedian Jimmy Carr
  • The ambiguity here is does the woman mean she expects the comedian to actually conduct research, or is she looking for a donation? The context, of course, implies that she's hoping he will make a contribution. He, on the other hand, goes for the punch line instead, purposely misunderstanding her.
"It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it."
—American comedian Steven Wright

The ambiguity here is lies within the phrase "small world." While the adage, "It's a small world" is generally accepted to have one of several accepted figurative meanings (what a coincidence; we're not so different from one another, etc.), Wright has chosen to take the phrase literally. Comparatively speaking, the world—as in the Earth—may not be as large as other planets, but it would still be a Herculean chore to paint it.

Sources

  • Eysenck, M.; M. Keane, M. "Cognitive Psychology." Taylor & Francis, 2005