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Syntactic Ambiguity

Why do linguists always find some complicated names for certain circumstances? Syntactic ambiguity is what happens when there are two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words. This is also called grammatical ambiguity, but unless you're studying linguistics for a profession you don't need to worry about these names.

All you need to remember is that the intended meaning of your ambiguous sentence can often be determined by context. Not always, mind you, but reading regularly will help you gain dexterity with this matter.

Let us consider a few examples now

Can you think of more than one interpretation for the following statements?

     • The professor said on Monday he would give an exam.

     • The chicken is ready to eat.

     • The burglar threatened the student with the knife.

     • Visiting relatives can be boring.

     • "This morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pyjamas I don't know." (Groucho Marx)

     • "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)

     • “Planes can go around the world, iPhones can do a zillion things, but humans have not invented a machine that can debone* a cow or a chicken as efficiently as a human being,' says Alan Alanis, a JPMorgan Chase (JPM) analyst."

Did you find them funny? Joke fabric, although the last one can pass as a macabre one. OK, let me help you with this one: what it really wants to say is 'a machine that can debone a cow or a chicken as efficiently as a human being can (debone them). If you don't mention the human being can do the action, you virtually include the human being in the group of creatures that can be deboned. In this context it is implied that a human being would be deboned even more efficiently than a cow or a chicken. 

* to debone = to take the meat off the bones; to get the bones out of a creature's body, in preparation for cooking it.

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