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Ambiguity:

I was recently contemplating how ambiguous English is — though I imagine this is true in large measure of all commonly spoken human languages — and I was reminded of this cool example. Take the word "and"; surely that must be about as clear as it gets. It isn't used figuratively; it doesn't have slang meanings; it's eminently concrete and functional.

Then think about the phrases "I like coffee and tea" and "I like whiskey and soda." How can English speakers even function? And yet we generally manage just fine.

By the way, if anyone knows the original source for this observation, please let me know. I vaguely recall having seen it in a case discussing statutory construction, but my quick search failed to uncover it. UPDATE: Commenter Andy Grewal comes through -- the source is Judge Rogers' dissent in OfficeMax v. U.S. (6th Cir. 2005), which uses "beer and wine" and "bourbon and water." Thanks!

byomtov (mail):
Don't we solve some of this by pronunciation? For example, we (I?) tend to say, "I like coffee and tea," emphasis on "and," but "I like whiskey 'n soda," with the "and" almost totally elided?
12.22.2007 11:09pm
Hoosier:
"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

(Or "I'm glad I'm a man and so's Lola.")

I suspect that English is like any other language--Context is everything. English /can/ be used ambiguously. But its immense vocabulary allows for greater precision than, say, French. Aroma, bouquet, scent, musk, stench, perfume, odor . . . You can express a lot of subtleties with a collection of words like ours.
12.22.2007 11:11pm
andy (mail) (www):
OfficeMax v. U.S., Lexis: 2005 TNT 212-15, 6th Cir 2005 (Rogers, dissenting):

ROGERS, Circuit Judge, dissenting. A host separately asked two prospective guests what they liked to drink. One said, "I like bourbon and water." The other said, "I like beer and wine." When the second guest arrived at the event, the host served the guest a glass of beer mixed with wine. "What's that awful drink?" said the guest, to which the host answered, "You said you liked beer and wine." Replied the guest: "Pfui! You know what I meant. Quit playing word games and get me something I can drink."

Of course the host was "playing word games," because the meanings of both "I like bourbon and water" and of "I like beer and wine" are clear. In the first sentence "I like" applies to "bourbon and water" together, whereas in the second sentence "I like" applies to each of "beer" and "wine" separately. Stated differently, the preceding words are distributed over the conjoined elements in the second sentence, so that the meaning is "I like beer and [I like] wine." But the preceding words are not distributed over the conjoined elements in the first sentence, so that the meaning is "I like (bourbon and water)." In each sentence the word "and" has the same conjunctive meaning -- the difference lies in whether the preceding words are distributed over the conjoined elements or not. Whether to interpret the preceding words as distributed over the conjoined elements or not depends on the context of the sentence, and what we externally know about the conjoined elements. Given what we know about the social context, and what we know about bourbon, water, beer and wine, the meanings of the two sentences are not at all ambiguous.
12.22.2007 11:20pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
A professor of philosophy was delivering an address at Princeton on logic and language. His introductory comments made the point that a double negative can sometimes be taken as an affirmation, and sometimes as a negation. And also, when combining a negative and a positive in ordinary language, the result can sometimes be affirmative and sometimes negative. The interesting thing he wanted to focus on in his talk, was that whenever a speaker uses two positive affirmations, the result is always an affirmation.

At this point, from the back of the room, Saul Kripke says dismissively: "Yeah, yeah." The speaker halts for a few seconds, folds up his notes, and the talk is over.

I don't know whether this story is apocryphal or not, but I like it all the same.
12.22.2007 11:25pm
QuietLurker:
When I was a freshman in high school, I made the mistake of saying that I thought English would be an easy language to learn in front of my English teacher. He said, "Explain to someone learning English how they can cut a tree down and then cut it up." I shuffled my feet and quieted down.
12.22.2007 11:31pm
Hoosier:
"His introductory comments made the point that a double negative can sometimes be taken as an affirmation, and sometimes as a negation."

I wouldn't say that this insight was not unoriginal.
12.22.2007 11:35pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Yes, or how a student can be sent down for sending up his teacher.

Then there are things like the effects of the lacking comma:

When are we going to eat, Dorothy? becomes When are we going to eat Dorothy? A slightly different meaning.

If you like this sort of thing, you might treat yourself to some of the writings of J.L. Austin who, besides being a fine philosopher of language, was an engaging and charming stylist. His book on performative utterances, How To Do Things With Words should be must reading for law students. And he has a wonderful essay analyzing the statement "There are biscuits on the table, if you want some."
12.22.2007 11:40pm
Javert:
"When I was a freshman in high school, I made the mistake of saying that I thought English would be an easy language to learn in front of my English teacher."

As opposed to trying to learn it in front of your physics teacher?
12.22.2007 11:59pm
wekt:
Here's an example where "and" can mean basically the same as "or", but where "or" has two very different meanings:

1.) I will be happy if given both a pizza and a cake.
2a.) I will be happy if given my choice of a pizza or a cake.
2b.) I will be happy if given my choice from a pizza and a cake.
3.) I will be happy if given either a pizza or a cake; I don't care which one.

(In #2a, #2b, and #3, I'm on a diet and will be unhappy if given both a pizza and a cake.)

This ambiguity shows up in Linear Logic, which deals with an agent in a world that changes over time rather than with the unchanging truths of classical logic. In constrast to the familiar AND and OR operators of classical logic, linear logic has 3 fundamental conjunction/disjunction operators:
(1) "both __ and __",
(2) "either __ or __, at the agent's choice", and
(3) "either __ or __, with the choice externally imposed".
12.23.2007 12:06am
PH (mail):
Bourbon and water; or beer and wine?

No action shall be brought or maintained against any county alone or when acting jointly with any other county under any law, its or their agents, officers or employees, for any noncontractual acts or omissions of such county or counties, its or their agents, officers or employees, relating to the improvement, protection, regulation and control for flood prevention and navigation purposes of any river or its tributaries and the beds, banks and waters thereof ...


Most the legislative history has been destroyed, but "and navigation" was added by a judiciary committee, not the waterways and harbors committee where the bill originated.

Any comments most welcome.
12.23.2007 12:08am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Cruel and unusual.
12.23.2007 12:28am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Where's the ambiguity. I like a drop o' the Irish, and my fridge can testify that I loves me some Coca-Cola. So, I like whiskey and soda.
12.23.2007 12:29am
Bender (mail):

"His introductory comments made the point that a double negative can sometimes be taken as an affirmation, and sometimes as a negation."

It is a linguistic fact that in some languages, e.g., classical Latin, negatives act like in arithmetic -- a double negative is underestood by native users as a positive -- and in some languages, e.g., English before Latinate grammarians got their hooks into it, piling on the negatives acts as an intensifier. One of the early Anglo Saxon chronicles, to emphasize the novelty of Viking raiders, wrote something that might be directly translated as something like: "No one had never seen no ships like that never before."

By the way, the "Yeah, yeah" story is learned by undergrad linguistics majors in every linguistics department in the country. In each one the name of the visiting lecturer and the location of his talk is different. To my mind this strongly suggests that the story is an urban myth.
12.23.2007 12:36am
lingvemulo (mail):
I think that English is relatively more ambiguous than many languages (though this particular example is probably not one of them), because of its lack of case endings, its tendency to stack words together without any indication as to what the connection is between them ("pretty little girls' school", "Japanese encephalitis vaccine", etc.), and its use of just a few grammatical endings (especially "-ing" and "-ed") with a wide variety of meanings.

Here's an interesting article on the ambiguities in faced by a translator, written by a long-time professional UN translator: http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/translation.htm
12.23.2007 12:46am
K Parker (mail):
The world of casual talk about languages is full of statements like "English is relatively more ambiguous" vs "But its immense vocabulary allows for greater precision than, say, French". In reality (and in actual linguistics) the situation is a lot more complicated and less one-sided than that; scholars tend to talk about language X being more ambiguous in certain contexts or constructs, rather than blanket statements about the language as a whole.

Same with the Easy/Hard business. It's not so much that some languages are harder to learn than others, it's that every language is relatively harder for someone to learn when that language is further in characteristics from a language the learner already knows well. Did I, as a native speaker of English, find the German case/number/gender system particularly difficult? Not really. Would monolingual speakers of Mandarin find it more troublesome to learn? Almost always.
12.23.2007 1:04am
bellisaurius (mail):
Can one actually say a language is ambiguous based on taking idiomatic phrasings, like "whiskey and soda", or "cutting down a tree"?

It would seem that the test of a language is how precise it can be, when ambiguity is suspected. "I'd like a martini with X oz of this and that, mixed together (shaken not stirred...), and served with an olive placed into the fluid," Granted, this isn't a phrasing I'd use with a bartender who should know what the drink is, but if I suspect he did know, I'd go with the potentially opaque "I'll have a dirty tom collins" or some-such.

Personally, a little ambiguity's an OK thing, even if only the natives get it. I'd be bored to tears talking in engineer or science speak all day with people who I suspect can handle the more figurative stuff. I'll take the monthly mistakes for the sake of beauty and parsimony.
12.23.2007 1:09am
Chris Newman (mail) (www):
This phenomenon (i.e., our ability in most cases to assign the correct meaning to an ambiguous word based on context, and to do so automatically, usually without even noticing that there is an ambiguity) is why I think the doctrine of trademark dilution is rubbish.
12.23.2007 1:53am
anym avey (mail):
It would seem that the test of a language is how precise it can be, when ambiguity is suspected.

1.) I think I'll pull the lever for this one.

2.) I believe the above-quoted statement is a correct interpretation of the question at hand, and if that statement were given as one of several options on a mechanical voting machine, I would select and operate the lever that corresponds to this option.

Or, to go back to the tree-cutting experiment someone mentioned earlier, it only becomes difficult to explain it because native speakers have such an intuitive sense of its meaning, they rarely stop to consider how the phrase was derived. We can say that we will cut a tree down because we are referencing orientation: it is currently standing upright, and it will shortly be lying on the ground. We can say that we will cut a tree up because we are referring to the count of its pieces: it is presently one tree, but it will soon be several logs and a large pile of smaller branches.
12.23.2007 1:55am
advisory opinion:
It wasn't Kripke and it wasn't Princeton.

It was J.L. Austin getting pwned by Sidney Morgenbesser at Columbia.
12.23.2007 2:00am
lingvemulo (mail):

Personally, a little ambiguity's an OK thing, even if only the natives get it.


I agree to a large extent, but the problem is that English has pretensions to be an international language, used just as much by non-native speakers as by native speakers.

I've read that Chinese is even worse than English in ambiguity (for translators anyway), and that French is relatively precise, often over-precise. Personally, I think that Esperanto has a great mixture of precision, expressiveness, and flexibility (but maybe I'm biased, since I'm familiar with it).
12.23.2007 2:12am
lingvemulo (mail):

It would seem that the test of a language is how precise it can be, when ambiguity is suspected.


To some degree, yes, but not completely. "Cut up/down a tree" is not ambiguous; it just uses 'down' and especially 'up' in highly idiosyncratic ways that can take some time to fully master for a non-native speaker.

Any language can be completely precise when ambiguity is suspected, through some manner of circumlocution. However, very rarely is potential ambiguity noticed when the sentence is being said or written; more often it falls to the listen to misunderstand without realizing it, or wonder about the intended meaning when the speaker is no longer readily available. Here are some examples in English:

International Civil Aviation Organization -- is it an organization for international civil aviation, or an international organization for all civil aviation, whether international or intranational?

Japanese encephalitis vaccine -- A vaccine for Japanese encephalitis, or a Japanese vaccine for encephalitis?

Put in database -- (a colleague wrote this on a paper they gave me at work) Does that mean that the paper was already put in the database, or that it needs to be put in the database?

fighting Iraqis -- Are the Iraqis fighting or being fought?

He insulted the chairman even more crudely than the previous speaker. -- "than the previous speaker did", or "than he insulted the previous speaker"?

Faithful or not, he loved her. -- Whose faithfulness is being questioned, his or hers?

... as if time, like wine, improved poetry. -- Is the comparison that wine improves poetry or that time improves wine?

(Some of the above examples were taken from here, others from articles I found here.)
12.23.2007 2:41am
randal (mail):
Oo Ooo.

It should be mandatory for lawyer-types to take linguistics.

Anyone familiar with how languages work would laugh at this thread as though it were monkeys discussing sign language.
12.23.2007 2:49am
BruceM (mail) (www):
all language rely on context to some extent. Written Hebrew often doesn't even have the vowels, you have tell the meaning by context.

That being said, sometimes I'm amazed at the amgibuities legislatures don't consider when they write statutes (or maybe they want it that way, knowing their judges are more likely to uphold the meaning they desire).
12.23.2007 3:15am
bellisaurius (mail):
I guess english does aspire to a greater spread than other languages, language learner (as a result of historical accident as opposed to esperanto, of course, but I generally think people are good a making virtue of a necessity). I also agree that a lot of ambiguity in language is completely unintentional and unsuspected, which only makes it worse.

The main defense is social awareness and literary context, which can be on short supply, but at the most basic levels, I think we have two issues with language in general: Word issues (definitional ambiguity, which I love since its possible to get plenty of puns and innuendos), and structural issues (most of the one's from your examples).

Definitional issues are probably unavoidable since we probably only have a limited room for vocabulary in our brains, and I'd think even with a language like esperanto, one will eventually have people who play with the language, looser usage and all the sorts of things that give us our prescritivist vs descriptivist conflicts in english.

Structural issues are more interesting. I like Latin's way of having the declensions of adjectives match the modified words, for example, but even that can get a bit ambiguous (especially with the lack of definite articles and such). I'm not familiar enough with esperanto to comment on its attempts to fix the issues, but I do think that languages tend to correct themselves over time to the people that speak it, and that the more egregious issues are evolved away, so I'm generally a fan of the establishment ones (I don;t have any data to support this, however, and my knowledge of OE and ME are middling at best).

I guess if I could sum myself up, I;d say the key to english's success as a lingua franca is the sensitivity of its speaker to foreign people trying to speak it, and the awareness to avoid idiom except where it's explicitly presented as such.
12.23.2007 3:48am
lingvemulo (mail):
I don't think that the relatively widespread adoption of English for international communication has anything to do with attitudes of its speakers, and I don't think that idioms are especially avoided in English (in fact, typical English text seems to be especially rich in idioms and idiomatic language, compared with other languages I know). I think it can be easily explained entirely by geopolitical and economic forces. If there were some other language that were more suited to international communication overall (as there certainly is, Spanish for example, to take a language which is already fairly widespread), it would not end up replacing English at the international level just by virtue of its superior linguistic properties or the attitude of its speakers.

Esperanto is unambiguous in the specific examples above, except for the ICAO, which according to the title of the Wikipedia article just copies the English, though Esperanto does have a way of making it unambiguous.

Esperanto is not overly precise. There is still some syntactic ambiguity, and certainly there are plenty of opportunities for puns, which Esperanto speakers take advantage of to the same degree that other speakers do. (I know an Esperanto speaker who has some kind of a pun almost every time I speak to him.) I've tried learning and using a language which was designed to have zero syntactic ambiguity (Lojban) and while the experience was very interesting in what it teaches you about language in general, it is very difficult to use properly and neither necessary nor desirable for everyday communication.
12.23.2007 5:07am
LM (mail):
or as we were taught in college:

Beer and wine is fine;
Wine and beer is... gay.
12.23.2007 5:15am
bellisaurius (mail):
Ah, I see I made a mistake in my post. I meant to say "The key to ehglish having a chance at becoming a lingua franca is..." Boy, is my face red.

Lojban sounds interesting, btw. Thanks for the link.
12.23.2007 5:31am
?? (mail):
bellisaurius, I see you made a mistake in your follow-up post. I've never heard of "ehglish." Is your face even redder than before?
The key is, read what you wrote before you post. It should only take a second, but it will save you from humiliation.
12.23.2007 6:10am
bellisaurius (mail):
Nah, not too much redder. I'm a big picture guy. Spelling errors just make me look inattentive, and scatterbrained, which I'm fine with. I'm more worried where things cause concept errors, which I generally to humble about and fess up to in an effort to correct them. Basically, if people discount an idea of mine because they feel bad spelling implies a lack of competence, then I lose out on the point of my being online, which is to have reasonable discussions and idea sharing.
12.23.2007 6:35am
lewis:
Ted Chiang's beautiful "Story of My Life" deals with the way in which language affects thought and Weltanschauung.
12.23.2007 8:16am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Well, of course 'and' is only ambiguous in one sense of the word...
12.23.2007 8:29am
Mike BUSL07 (mail):
My Admin prof, Jay Wexler, illustrated ambiguity with this sentence: "The zookeeper poked the gorilla with the banana." Cute.
12.23.2007 8:50am
Alan Gunn (mail):
I don't claim any expert knowledge. But I'd be astonished to learn that any language is more prone to genuine ambiguity than any other. No matter what their language, people have to communicate about the same sorts of things, and if their language didn't enable them to do it, they'd change it. None of the examples of ambiguity given here strike me as genuine barriers to understanding, especially when read in light of the common-sense notion that what people say should be interpreted so as to make sense. Most of these supposed ambiguities raise problems only when read too literally. I once had a student, who I suspect was mentally ill, who could read English with a fanatical literalness that could find ambiguity almost anywhere. But the things that troubled him didn't bother others at all.
12.23.2007 9:08am
b.:
it's only ambiguous on the level of syntax. context makes the meaning of each statement abundantly clear. context (or, in linguistics, "pragmatics") is as amuch a part of language as is syntax, phonology, or the lexicon. therefore, to say that "english," the language--or any other language, for that matter--is ambiguous simply becuase one must look beyond syntax and semantics to grasp the meaning of sentences strikes me as unduly formalistic.

as a long-time student and speaker of mandarin, i thought the same of that language when i first began my studies. mandarin has an uncommonly large number of homophones and near-homophones (see, e.g. this poem composed entirely of the sound "shi"). when one speaks quickly, in brief phrases, and/or without *context* (i.e., uttering sequences of unrelated thoughts), a speaker's meaning can be difficult to grasp. (this feature of the language is unique to its spoken form, as most words in mandarin, homophones included, have a unique logographic indetifier.) the meaning of each phrase and utterance becomes much clearer when situated in context.

the idea that mandarin is "ambiguous" can only be maintained when the language as spoken is divorced from context. but as my third-year chinese instructor chided me years ago: "who told you not to pay attention to context?!"
12.23.2007 9:08am
David M. Nieporent (www):
My Admin prof, Jay Wexler, illustrated ambiguity with this sentence: "The zookeeper poked the gorilla with the banana." Cute.
"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."
12.23.2007 9:09am
K Parker (mail):
b,
see, e.g. this poem composed entirely of the sound "shi"
In a perhaps similar vein, see the large number of languages that have whistle speech; some of them (the Aztec family at least, such as the Chinantec cited at the link) also have entire sentences you can say w/o opening your mouth.
12.23.2007 9:42am
NaG (mail):
Mmmhmm.
12.23.2007 10:22am
lingvemulo (mail):
Some languages are more or less ambiguous when context is lacking. Mandarin very much so; English less so; and Russian probably not very ambiguous. Most of the time that doesn't matter, of course, because context is normally available, and native speakers are good at guessing what was meant (often without even realizing the ambiguity). But in some cases some parties to the communication are not native speakers, and context is lacking or inadequate, and extra precision is required for scientific or legal texts. In those cases, not all languages are equally suited, though all languages are capable of fulfilling the role of an international language to a degree if they are chosen for political instead of linguistic reasons, and without careful attention the inadequacies mostly won't even be noticed compared to other languages.
12.23.2007 11:12am
Bender (mail):
I'm just reminded of the friendly argument I had with a Chinese fellow that I work with. He was complaining about the incredible ambiguity of English kinship terms. From what he said I got the impression that in Chinese there are exact terms for every kinship relation, e.g., there is no generic for cousin but a whole family of specifiers such as "the son of my mother's third youngest brother and his wife". Similarly there is no generic term for great-grand-father, instead there are words that convey the relation "father's mother's father. And so on. It would appear that to a native speaker of Chinese English kinship terminology is incredibly baroque, while to a native speaker of English, Chinese kinship terminology would be incredibly baroque. It's worth noting in passing that most European laguages, except English, distinguish male from female cousins and many distinguish maternal versus paternal blood aunts and uncles. The conversation brought back fond memories of a research paper I once wrote exploring various mathematical models relating kinship systems to the languages associated with them. If you ever want to start a great argument based on linguistic ambiguities in American English, ask people at a party to define what a second cousin is or a second cousin once removed. There are two competing systems of kinship terminology in the US and each is utterly unaware of the other!
12.23.2007 11:21am
Ahcuah (mail):
Along these lines, the Revised Statutes of Ohio, in their chapter on Rules of Construction, say, in Section 1.02(F):

As used in the Revised Code, unless the context otherwise requires:

(F) "And" may be read "or," and "or" may be read "and" if the sense requires it.
12.23.2007 11:36am
jdh (mail) (www):
A second cousin means someone who shares a great-grandparent. A second cousin once removed means someone whose great-great-grandparent is the same as my great-grandparent, or vice versa. Coming from a large family that now has 4 living generations, and being good friends with one of my second cousins, we've actually sat down and hashed the terminology out. =)
12.23.2007 1:51pm
Ken Arromdee:
So does punishment which is cruel but not unusual violate the prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment"?
12.23.2007 2:16pm
Michael Barclay (mail):
On the Duffy Pratt postings: The way I heard this about 10 years ago was as follows. After being told that all double positives were still positive, the student in the back of the room says, "Yeah, right."

This uses a bit of 21st century jargon, but it makes the point somewhat better than "Yeah, yeah."
12.23.2007 2:18pm
PubliusFL:
anym avey said:

We can say that we will cut a tree down because we are referencing orientation: it is currently standing upright, and it will shortly be lying on the ground. We can say that we will cut a tree up because we are referring to the count of its pieces: it is presently one tree, but it will soon be several logs and a large pile of smaller branches.

I think this is over-rationalizing an idiomatic usage of the preposition "up." I would guess that "up" in "cutting X up" is equivalent to its usage when we talk about "messing" something "up," "dressing" something "up," or "cleaning" something "up." We're not talking about the orientation OR the count of the indirect object. It's more a sense that the messiness, dressiness, cleanliness, or "cut-ness" of the object is being increased by our action.
12.23.2007 2:30pm
MJG:
Two notes:

One Ward Farnsforth of BU I know has been working on the fundamental ambiguity of language regarding statutory interpretation. I'm not sure what his findings might be but it will be interesting, I'm sure. This is a great example.

And I love Judge Rogers' dissent. One reason I love it is that Judge Rogers was a longtime Law Professor at the University of Kentucky, and he is I believe now stationed in Lexington. His claim that "I like bourbon and water" is "clear" takes on all the more significance when you consider that he has been living in Kentucky for at least 10-20 years. It really is beyond contention, whether you're a lawyer, a local party guest, or Wittgenstein himself.
12.23.2007 5:23pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
For what it's worth, I've always felt "cruel and unusual" was a single description of an understood, and known to evolve, concept. Not that the 8th Amendment requires courts to first analyze whether something is cruel and then analyze whether it is unusual (in other words, it's not a two-step process).

I would be quite disappointed, to say the least, if a US court upheld a punishment finding that it was indeed cruel, but not unusual (especially if the unusual-ness is measured by frequency of employment as a punishment), thus failing a two-part 8th Amendment test.
12.23.2007 5:56pm
kimsch (mail) (www):
Bender, my understanding was:
My mother(father)'s sister(brother)'s child is my first cousin.
My first cousin's child is my first cousin once removed (one generation)
My mother(father)'s first cousin also my first cousin once removed (one generation the other direction)
My child's relationship to my first cousin's child is that of second cousin.
My child's relationship to my first cousin's grandchild would be that of second cousin, once removed.
12.23.2007 6:49pm
BobVDV2 (mail):
An amorous couple:

"What is this thing called love"?

or

"What is THIS thing called, love?"
12.23.2007 8:19pm
Connie:
"The wooded moon of Endor."

Is the moon's name Endor, or do the Ewoks live on a moon around the planet Endor?
12.23.2007 9:56pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Neither. The moon belonged to a guy named Endor.
12.23.2007 10:05pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Spoken French is so filled with homonyms that schoolkids are required to write down their teachers' dictation to demonstrate their ability to figure it out from context. Around the world, even adults compete at "La dictee," as, for example, La Dictee des Ameriques: http://www.dicteedesameriques.com/niveau2.aspx?sm=3_1

As for English, all I can say is that it's a slovenly woman who cooks carrots and peas in the same pot.
12.23.2007 10:21pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
THIS:

"Of course the host was "playing word games," because the meanings of both "I like bourbon and water" and of "I like beer and wine" are clear. In the first sentence "I like" applies to "bourbon and water" together, whereas in the second sentence "I like" applies to each of "beer" and "wine" separately. Stated differently, the preceding words are distributed over the conjoined elements in the second sentence, so that the meaning is "I like beer and [I like] wine." But the preceding words are not distributed over the conjoined elements in the first sentence, so that the meaning is "I like (bourbon and water)." In each sentence the word "and" has the same conjunctive meaning -- the difference lies in whether the preceding words are distributed over the conjoined elements or not. Whether to interpret the preceding words as distributed over the conjoined elements or not depends on the context of the sentence, and what we externally know about the conjoined elements. Given what we know about the social context, and what we know about bourbon, water, beer and wine, the meanings of the two sentences are not at all ambiguous"

is so lost on an autistic no one will get any objections from persons with autism that the English language is ambiguous and creates *the autism communication gap*.

I thought law schools were trying to get lawyers to write sentences with more clear meaning these days. What happened to that idea?
12.24.2007 8:41pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
And HERE is precisely why a standardized test cannot measure the abilities of a person with autism -- tests of linear thinking constitute discriminatory mental tests, usually pre-offer the position for which one has applied:

"Here's an example where "and" can mean basically the same as "or", but where "or" has two very different meanings:

1.) I will be happy if given both a pizza and a cake.
2a.) I will be happy if given my choice of a pizza or a cake.
2b.) I will be happy if given my choice from a pizza and a cake.
3.) I will be happy if given either a pizza or a cake; I don't care which one.

(In #2a, #2b, and #3, I'm on a diet and will be unhappy if given both a pizza and a cake.)

This ambiguity shows up in Linear Logic, which deals with an agent in a world that changes over time rather than with the unchanging truths of classical logic. In constrast to the familiar AND and OR operators of classical logic, linear logic has 3 fundamental conjunction/disjunction operators:
(1) 'both __ and __',
(2) 'either __ or __, at the agent's choice', and
(3) 'either __ or __, with the choice externally imposed'."

The problem is, standardized linear tests are of the 1930s era of scientific udnerstanding of intelligence.

But with the advent of computers, scrolling pages, and hyperlinking, linear thinking is at a disadvantage.

It is sort of like cave men who continued fighting with clubs when modern men invented the rifle.
12.24.2007 8:48pm
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
"I once had a student, who I suspect was mentally ill, who could read English with a fanatical literalness that could find ambiguity almost anywhere. But the things that troubled him didn't bother others at all."

Oh, here we go again ... why do all the *neurotypicals* feel such a perseveration to arbitrarily supply uncomplimentary modifiers to a person with autism's "literalness," like "fanatical" and "mentally ill?" Don't tell me, duh, this is why we have all those standardized "mental thinking style" tests to ferret out all the autistics who just happen to think in a different non-linear more computer-esque 3-D style that gets the *neurotypicals* so worked-up they become obsessed with why autistics are *different*? This is like asking why there are so many different shapes of sugar cookies. Why? Just because... some like to eat Christmas trees and other like to eat Snowmen or Holiday bells.

My opinion about the ambiguity found in the English language is that it is usually precipitated a deliberate tactical manuever mostly by lawyers to take advantage and hedge bets in the event the future just might erupt into litigation. For example, I saw a great contract for a several million dollar development project that left several blanks spaces unfilled -- ooooh the ambiguity!

Additionally, persons with autism do have deficits in pragmatics, and it is typical for numerous *neurotypicals* to deliberately make vague and ambiguous English statements by communicating only the gists to ensure persons with autism cannot follow the conversation. The English language is sufficiently specific, however, to state things with more particularity -- unless one is a legal opportunist.

The equivalent to those who state ambiguous gists when speaking English can be found in the difference between Modern Standard written Arabic and most spoken Arabic, especially the numerous dialects -- spoken Arabic is much harder to follow primarily due to leaving off gender and case endings of who/what is being referred to, as compared to when a new Arabic learner sees it written, what has been said is clear. This is especially true when women are trying to follow the conversation of men, or Americans are trying to follow the conversation of native Arabic speakers.

I never took Mandarin, which I have been told is difficult. However, I am not sure it is the ambiguity that is the real thinking problem associated with speaking/writing in multiple different languages, but rather the fact there is a unique thinking process, way of coonceptualizing things, and order of thought specific to each different language that makes it hard for a native English speaker to transit between different languages.

Russian, for example, requires an English speaker to think in advance exactly what order words said will have to be stated, in a different manner than speaking in English. Spanish has way too many idioms, and conversational Spanish speeds along quite fast. If a native Spanish speaker doesn't want to be understood, he or she just speaks at a greater speed. I know some of my friends who have lost me in the middle of conversations by this technique.

I actually found Arabic to be the easiest in terms of being very phonetic and havign orderly predictable rules of language, easier in fact than English but for my being a native English speaker. One just has to get used to writing from right to left and in the Arabic script. It is best to begin learning Arabic by speaking it before writing it, like a child learns language.

I think the reason people are finding ambiguity in the 'cut the tree down' vs. 'cut the tree up' example is due to the device of rearranging the word order to assert a claim there is ambiguity where there is none.

The proper phrase is 'cut up' the tree, describing an act one does applied to many other objects 'cut up' -- e.g., cakes, steak, trees, dress material, etc. Whereas, 'cut the tree down' describes what gravity does when one makes a vertical cut into a tree trunk, thereby functions as a shorthand way to describe the motion of the tree under conditions of gravity once the vertical cut is made into the tree trunk.

If one has never made a vertical cut into a tree, one would not understand. As it is with almost any human experience.

It is like asking why pig threads are like jazz, to use a different example of innuendo and colloquim. "If you have to ask, you don't understand."
12.24.2007 9:40pm
lindaseebach (mail):
b@9:08 said:

it's only ambiguous on the level of syntax

but there's nothing "only" about syntactic ambiguity. Writers who wish to be precise -- and that ought to include both legislators writing bills and judges writing opinions -- should be sensitive to potential ambiguities (of various kinds) so they can choose to avoid them.

I wouldn't have bothered to say something so obvious except for the lovely irony that b's comment is itself an examplar of one of the common sources of syntactic ambiguity in English, the placing of the adverb "only"where it syntactically modifies the entire predicate when the obvious meaning applies it to one specific element.

Compare:
it's ambiguous only on the level of syntax

with
it's only ambiguous on the level of syntax, not unintelligible

As a one-time grad student in linguistics, I heartily endorse the suggestion that familiarity with it is useful to lawyers.
12.25.2007 7:22am
b.:
dear Linda,

my placement of the word "only" in the comment above was both right and true. it's meaning is only ambiguous if you assume it means other than what it says.

professor volokh had suggested that the entire english language was ambiguous. i responded by saying that the phrase offered in support of this argument was "only ambiguous on the level of syntax."

though your placement of the adverb makes perfect sense, my meaning should be read as written, that is: "the phrase is not ambiguous, and it can *only* be considered as such when parsed on the level of syntax, without respect to context."

as someone with graduate degrees in both linguistics *and* law, i heartily endorse the suggestion that that you (i) be less verbose, and (ii) disabuse yourself of straw men, when posting snarky comments on law blogs.
12.26.2007 7:03am
b.:
... while i, of course, should proofread all comments that i write before posting them, and especially those that i write so early in the morning, lest i inadvertently punctuate an "its" and make it possessive :-(

the shame. the horror.
12.26.2007 7:09am
Mary Katherine Day-Petrano (mail):
"b.:" I share your spell-correct frustration, but in my case it is not a failure to proofread so much as not having yet perfected the go-betweens of my Dragon NatuarallySpeaking with a few typed in corrections. Maybe someday I will be able hold my own in a written spelling bee as well as an oral one *sigh*.
12.27.2007 1:49pm