Metalinguistic Autoreference—Benoît de Cornulier Lingua Pranca Contents Linguistics: A Study in Hopeless Clauses—Metalleus

Ambiguity In Action: A Bawdy Count

Norman C. Stageberg
University of Northern Iowa

One major source of humor is found in the many and various situations of everyday life, both as they occur in actuality and as they are refined and recounted in literature. A second major source of humor is language itself in its many aspects. One of these aspects is ambiguity. This is our subject for today: ambiguity in language and the pranks it plays.

First, however, I believe that every gathering of people to pursue a serious subject should have a motto to give direction and purpose to their thoughts. So, I offer as a motto for us on this solemn occasion a sign that I once saw outside a dance hall near Iowa City. It goes like this:

  1. Clean and decent dancing every night except Monday.

As we progress I shall define our terms one by one. The first term we must understand is ambiguity. Ambiguity means double or multiple meaning. When a given word or language structure can have two or more definite meanings in its context, we say that it is ambiguous. Here are a few examples of ambiguity:

  1. (This one is taken from a column of advice to newlyweds in which the author is suggesting they should do things together.)
    When she washes the dishes, he should wash the dishes with her. When she mops up the floor, he should mop up the floor with her.

  2. (This sentence comes from an advertisement for women’s underwear)
    Our lingerie is the finestsmart women wear nothing else.

  3. (The following example is the end of a letter to the editor printed in the Waterloo Courier. It was written in a semi-literate style, and the writer complained about the unhappy lot of a married woman.)
    No wife wishes to be misused and then consummated. It is an unholy position.

Next, we must distinguish between ambiguity and vagueness. A vague expression is merely indefinite. Often a vague word is one expressing a quality that can exist in varying degrees, like strong. For example, a diplomatic statement like “My government will take strong measures, etc.” is vague, not ambiguous. Many words are essentially vague; the word anything is one of these. For example, you may have heard the conundrum: “What is the difference between a bachelor girl and an old maid?” The answer is:

  1. “A bachelor girl is one who has never been married. An old maid is one who has never been married, or anything.”

Now we must distinguish between the two main types of ambiguity, lexical and structural ambiguity. Lexical ambiguity occurs when two or more meanings of a single word or expression are applicable in a given context. Here are four examples of lexical ambiguity:

  1. (A college professor’s wife is dressing for a cocktail party and he is chiding her about the immodesty of her attire. He says:)
    I have always looked down on low-cut dresses.

  2. (This announcement appeared on a bulletin board at Maxwell AFB regarding a change in administrative procedure. Instead of secretaries being assigned to individual officers, they were to be grouped into a secretarial pool from which officers could draw a secretary when needed. The announcement read:)
    Officers wishing to take advantage of secretaries in the pool must go to Building 506 to show evidence of their need.

  3. (This is from a questionnaire sent to the University of Denver Law School)
    How many faculty members do you have, broken down by sex?

  4. This is from a news item reprinted in the New Yorker. It tells about “...the Wellesley College housemother who informed the girls in her charge that henceforth a bell would be rung ten minutes prior to the end of visiting hours to allow the young men time to withdraw.”

Lexical ambiguity, then, derives from the meanings of words, not from their structures.

Now a digression. We should perhaps mention pseudo-ambiguity, that is, the use of a wrong word, permitting two interpretationsthat of the word intended and that of the wrong word. Here is a simple example:

  1. Since this is Easter Sunday, we’ll ask Mrs. Abercrombie to come forward and lay an egg on the altar.

That must have been the same service at which the minister, in his morning prayer, thanked the Lord for the trees and the grass and the flowers and every blooming thing.

We turn now from lexical to structural ambiguity. Structural ambiguity stems from the grammar of English, not from the different meaning of individual words. And structural ambiguity must be subdivided into at least three kinds, each of which I shall describe in turn. The first kind is syntactic ambiguity. Syntactic ambiguity occurs when the arrangement of words in a grammatical structure permits two or more meanings to emerge. An example is afforded by the story told about former Governor Kirk of Florida. One time a political opponent called him

  1. A fat ladies’ man.

To this the governor wittily retorted, “I like thin ladies too.” The arrangement of words in this noun-phrase structure is adjective+noun+noun. When this grammatical sequence occurs, the adjective can modify either the first or the second nounin this case, fat ladies or fat man. If the meaning of the adjective is compatible with that of both nouns, the noun phrase will be ambiguous, unless the enveloping context channels the meaning to a single noun. This particular syntactic pattern produces ambiguities with high frequency. Here are six instances:

  1. A nude art authority spoke to the assembled students.

  2. (Headline in an Arizona paper)
    Three petrified forest rangers shifted.

  3. Dirty language lab

  4. Painted ladies room

  5. Modern language teaching

  6. American Dialect Society

In all these cases, two modifiersan adjective and a nounprecede the final noun. When more than two modifiers precede the noun head in a noun phrase, the possibilities of ambiguity multiply. For example:

  1. Old-fashioned teachers’ convention hotel

What is old-fashioned here? The teachers? The convention? Or the hotel?

Another syntactically ambiguous structure is this one: present or past participle + noun. A present participle, I hardly need remind you, is a verb form ending in -ing, like frightening; and a past participle is a verb form ending in -ed or -en, like discarded. Here is a case of an ambiguous present participle:

  1. Patent medicines are sold by frightening people.

We note that frightening people can be a verb + its objectthat is, someone frightens people. But it can also be an adjective + a nounthat is, the people who sell are very frightening. And here is a similar case:

  1. Josephine likes exciting males.

And for the past participle in the same structure, consider this sentence:

  1. The ladies of the Walnut Street Mission have discarded clothes. They invite you to come and inspect them.

Still another syntactic ambiguity comes into being when a pair of words may be interpreted as either a separable two-part verb or as a verb + preposition. Let me explain the difference. In the sentence, “He turned down the offer,” turned down is the verb. It has two parts and it is separable in that we can say “He turned the offer down,” meaning “He rejected the offer.” But in the sentence “He turned down the street,” turned is the verb and down is a preposition. He turned where? Down the street. And we could not separate turn and down while retaining the same meaning. “He turned the street down” meaning “down the street” simply does not work. These two structuresseparable two-part verb and verb + prepositionare often kept apart in spoken English by the placement of the stress, thus:

He turned dôwn the offer.

He tûrned down the street.

But when such a pair of words is spoken with level stress, or when they meet the eye in written English, then ambiguity is possible. Here are three examples:

  1. The teacher stood drinking in the moonlight.

  2. Valdon looked over her bare shoulder.

  3. President Ford swears in his new cabinet.

The second kind of structural ambiguity is called class ambiguity. This occurs when a word can be classified as more than one part of speech in a given context. An example was reported in the New York Times in these words:

  1. A homeowner in Minehead, England, wished to return an empty coal sack to his coal delivery man, so he left a note on the front door saying, “Empty sack in kitchen.” When he returned he found a pile of coal on his kitchen floor.

The next example of class ambiguity is taken from a sign on a seaside gift shop:

  1. Buy your girl a bikini and watch her beam with delight.

  2. (This is from an advertisement in Wellington, New Zealand, in which an electric power company advertised for:)
    A part-time female cleaner.

The following reply came from a young man: “My experience is limited, but I consider a bath with plenty of soap and water the best method. I am sure that a trial period would show that I could get a female sparkling clean and I would take keen pleasure in the work, and wages would be of minor importance.”

And now an outrageous example. A Chinese teacher of philosophy was addressing a class of American students one evening on the subject of Chinese thought. He had just asserted that much wisdom is embedded in old Chinese proverbs when the lights went out. Immediately he said to the class, “Will you please raise your hands?” The hands went up. A few seconds later the lights came on, whereupon he remarked:

  1. You see, many hands make light work.

A third kind of structural ambiguity we might call vocal ambiguity. The term vocal refers to the stresses, pitches, and pauses by means of which the human voice can control meanings and distinguish one meaning from another. Here is an example of such vocal control. An English professor might make this assignment to his Chaucer class: “Tomorrow we shall examine the Wife of Báth’s tale.” But he could change the meaning and liven up his class by a slight vocal change: “Tomorrow we shall examine the Wife of Bath’s táil.” Now, when the human voice is not present to exert vocal control, as in written English, the writer has lost an important carrier of meaning and can easily fall victim to ambiguity. He will hear his written sentence one way but his reader may hear it a different way.

The next three examples are ambiguous in written form but are perfectly clear when spoken because the voice indicates the meaning intended.

  1. (This is a headline from an eastern newspaper, the Port Jarvis (NY) Union Gazette)
    Mentally Retarded Teachers Sought by Education Department

  2. There are seventeen saloons in Iowa City and I’ve never been in one of them.

  3. I have instructions to leave.

Let us now look at stress, pitch, and pause one by one and see how each can operate to distinguish meaning. First of all, stress. Stress means the degree of prominence we give a syllable by means of the voice. There are four degrees of stress, which we indicate by these marks, going from strongest to weakest: ´ ^ `  ̆

Certain combinations of these stresses are used by English speakers to signal particular grammatical structures. I will present just three of these combinations, those that will be used in the illustrations to follow.

^ ´ = adjective + noun, as in old-fâshioned glásses
^ ´ = verb + object, as in They are êating ápples
´ ` = compound noun, as in old-fáshioned glàsses
They are éating àpples.

Such stress signals, however, are not indicated in written English; thus an important way of controlling meaning is lost, and ambiguity can easily occur. Let’s look at a few cases. The story is told of a furniture salesman who was explaining the virtues of a particular davenport to a woman customer. He lost the sale when he misplaced the stress in this remark:

  1. This davenport can be used for an occasional píece.

Now here are a few more in printed form. You can try them out with your voices and see for yourselves the differences produced by the ^ ´ pattern and the ´ ` pattern.

  1. Dan enjoys bathing girls.

  2. John is broad-minded.

  3. They are antique lovers.

  4. Our milk has a stable flavor the year round.

  5. I am an outdoor lover.

  6. Evelyn is a designing teacher.

  7. She is a patient counselor.

One day in the coffee room, I playfully told my colleagues that I wanted to study head-shrinking, as practiced by the Amazonian Indians, but that I didn’t know how to begin my research in the university library. One colleague grinned and said, “That’s easy. You should go and talk with the head cataloguer.”

The second vocal component of interest to us is pitch. That pitch is used in conveying and distinguishing meanings can be simply illustrated by the interrogatives, like who, when, where, and how. Take this sentence:

  1. George has a new girlfriend. Who?

If who is spoken with a rising pitch, the answer will be George. But if who is spoken with a falling pitch, the answer will be Sadie Thompson or Geraldine, or some other girl’s name. The rising pitch signals a request for a repetition. The falling pitch signals a request for more information. Similarly,

  1. We’re going to eat at the Amanas. Where?

Pitch, however, is seldom used alone to separate meanings. It is usually employed in conjunction with stress: A strong stress tends to be accompanied by a higher pitch. So we will pass along to our third vocal item, pause. Let us begin here with an example, a notice that appeared on a Texas bulletin board:

  1. Secretary about to be married urgently needs a two-room apartment.

In this sentence, if we put a strong stress on married and lengthen the vowel, there is a feeling of pause, or break, after married, even though there is probably no actual pause at all. But if the strong stress is on urgently and if we lengthen the stressed vowel, then the pause is experienced after urgently. This kind of pause or break, technically called a sustained juncture, is widely used in English to show division points between groups of words. Sometimes a written sentence may take such a pause in two different places, with two different meanings, and will therefore be ambiguous in its written, but not in its spoken, form. To illustrate this point, I will read aloud three pairs of sentences. The two members of each pair have the same words in the same order, and the only difference will be in the sustained junctures:

  1. (Headline in NY Times)
    Smoking chief cause of fire deaths here.

  2. Would you love to travel with me?

  3. Do you know what good clean fun is?

And here is an example that can have three meanings, depending on where one puts the juncture:

  1. The Israeli city fathers appointed an Arab deputy chief engineer in charge of roads.

At this point we have looked at a handful of English grammatical structures and sentence situations that can be the habitat of ambiguity. It must be emphasized that many such structures are potentially, but not necessarily, ambiguous. Often the ambiguity can occur only under specific grammatical conditions. For instance, consider the ambiguous,

  1. Girl watcher.

In spoken English there is no problem here because the stress reveals the meaning. A gîrl wátcher is a girl who watches. A gírl wàtcher is someone who watches girls. But in written form girl watcher is ambiguous because the stresses are not given and because of certain grammatical conditions. To understand these conditions, we need a little background information, and here it is. When two nouns adjoin, the first may have a subject relationship to the verb base of the second, as in student complaint, that is, a student complains. Or the first noun may have an object relationship to the verb base of the second noun, as in package delivery, that is, someone delivers a package. Now to the point. When both of these relationships can be understood in a noun + noun structure, we have a predictable structural ambiguity. A few examples are these: student lover, Eskimo hunter, bride slayer, police identification.

In summary, the potentiality that language has for ambiguity, both in the numerous meanings of individual words and in its many grammatical structures, is an ever-lurking source of humor, and also a danger to the writer. And now let us end this playful disquisition on a serious and thoughtful note:

  1. The president of the ICTE, Harry Wencher, discussed the high cost of living with several women.

Metalinguistic Autoreference—Benoît de Cornulier
Linguistics: A Study in Hopeless Clauses—Metalleus
Lingua Pranca Contents