A couple of years ago, Neal Whitman and Mark Liberman scrutinized a claim by James J. Kilpatrick. From Mark’s summary, here:
James Kilpatrick complained in print about the “horrid” headline “Mass Transit Not An Option for All Drivers”, on the grounds that “if mass transit is not an option for ‘all’ drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver”. He added, “Even a little ambiguity is a dangerous thing. The problem with this Horrid Example is that it creates a nanosecond of uncertainty.”
Neal Whitman and I ignored the “nanosecond of uncertainty” business, since a literal application of this idea would put pretty much all of the English language off limits.
Mark and Neal focused instead on Kilpatrick’s treatment of negation and quantification (and Jan Freeman joined in with a discussion of another example from this point of view). Here I’m going to go a bit further with the “nanosecond of uncertainty” matter and the dangers of “even a little ambiguity”.
Mark is right, of course, that avoiding the potential for ambiguity is a hopeless goal; potential ambiguities are an omnipresent feature of languages (as I’ve noted in several Language Log postings, for instance here, here, and here). As a result, language processing is just one damn nanosecond (well, millisecond) of uncertainty after another. Almost all of these moments are below the level of consciousness, though some people are a bit more sensitive to the possibility of multiple interpretations than others are.
Now for some cases (recently collected, all in print) where I was aware of a moment of uncertainty.
Coordination. First, one (from Dan Mahaffey) that required a serious moment of rethinking:
Several groups trying to re-ignite New England’s faith are theologically conservative, such as the Southern Baptists, Presbyterian Church in America and the Conservative Baptists’ Mission Northeast. They say a reason for the region’s hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality. (link)
As Mahaffey pointed out in e-mail, a serial comma (after salvation) would make it clear that homosexuality is the third conjunct in a series and that salvation and homosexuality is not a constituent. But then the Associated Press doesn’t use serial commas.
Now one from “Colors From a World of Black and White” (by Holland Cotter, New York Times Week in Review, October 11):
Thomas was born in Columbus, Ga., in 1891,
and moved to Washington [D.C.] in her teens… Her par-
ents had relocated for two reasons: racial vio-
lence was on the rise in Georgia and Washington
had excellent public schools.
I’ve reproduced the line divisions here, because they contribute to the moment of uncertainty, in which Georgia and Washington is interpreted, nonsensically, as a constituent. A comma separating the two conjoined clauses would have helped things, but the Times doesn’t require this comma when the conjoined clauses are short.
Modifier attachment. From the NYT again (“N.F.L. Players With Head Injuries Find a Voice”, by Alan Schwarz, October 28):
Sitting at a restaurant here Friday, she reconnected with a few Buccaneers retirees. There was Richard Wood, the fearsome linebacker known as Batman whose searing migraines and tendency to get lost in his own neighborhood leave him scared for his future. Across the table was Scot Brantley, an even harder hitter through the 1980s whose short-term memory is gone. Then there was Brandy Winans, former wife of Buccaneers lineman Jeff Winans, who slipped into such inexplicable depression, fogginess and fury several years ago that their marriage splintered.
At first I took that final relative clause to be modifying Brandy Winans, even though it comes right after Buccaneers lineman Jeff Winans — probably because there are three sentences in sequence, the first about Richard Wood, the second about Scot Brantley, the third about Brandy Winans.
Then one involving a modifying adverbial (NYT, “Transcripts of Defeat” by Victor Sebestyen, October 29):
The Soviet leaders realized that they had blundered soon after the invasion.
That is, soon after the invasion, the Soviet leaders realized that they had blundered. This is clear in the context of the op-ed piece, but attachment to the verb blundered (rather than realized) is tempting.
Lexical ambiguity. And, finally, in a headline in the NYT on October 29:
More Britons for Afghan War
At first I read this as saying that the number of Britons in favor of the Afghan War has increased. But then the body of the teaser went on:
Prime Minister Gordon Brown set conditions for sending 500 more British troops to Afghanistan.
Oh, those prepositions!
Note. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify any of these examples as outright mistakes, or to insist that they should have been re-written for greater clarity. I’m probably more sensitive to the possibility of multiple interpretations than most people, and in any case once you start looking for things like potential attachment ambiguities, you’ll find them everywhere.