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syntactic ambiguity


syntactic ambiguity

An example of syntactic ambiguity


The presence of two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words. Also called grammatical ambiguity. Compare with lexical ambiguity.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

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

  • The chicken is ready to eat.

  • Visiting relatives can be boring.

  • "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."
    (Bryan Gruley and Lucia Kassai, "Brazilian Meatpacker JBS Wrangles the U.S. Beef Industry." Bloomberg Businessweek, September 19, 2013)

  • Using Prosodic Cues to Decipher Syntactic Ambiguity
    "Some sentences are syntactically ambiguous at the global level, in which case the whole sentence has two or more possible interpretations. For example, 'They are cooking apples' is ambiguous because it may or may not mean that apples are being cooked. . . .

    "One of the ways in which listeners work out the syntactic or grammatical structure of spoken sentences is by using prosodic cues in the form of stress, intonation, and so on. For example, in the ambiguous sentence 'The old men and women sat on the bench,' the women may or may not be old. If the women are not old, then the spoken duration of word 'men' will be relatively long and the stressed syllable in 'women' will have a steep rise in speech contour. Neither of these prosodic features will be present if the sentence means the women are old."
    (M. Eysenck and M. Keane, Cognitive Psychology. Taylor & Francis, 2005)

  • Ambiguous Structures
    "Syntactic ambiguity occurs when a sequence of words can be structured in alternative ways that are consistent with the syntax of the language. For instance, . . . [this word group] is ambiguous:
    (1) a. John told the woman that Bill was dating. . . .
    In 1a, "that Bill was dating" could either be a relative clause (as in 'John told the woman that Bill was dating a lie') or a sentence complement (as in 'John told the woman that Bill was dating a liar')."
    (Patrizia Tabossi et al., "Semantic Effects on Syntactic Ambiguity Resolution" in Attention and Performance XV, ed. by C. Umiltà. MIT Press, 1994)
Also Known As: structural ambiguity, grammatical ambiguity
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