Syntactic ambiguity

"Amphibology" redirects here. For the mineral, see amphibole. For the study of amphibians (amphibiology), see amphibian.
For philosophical considerations of ambiguity, see ambiguity.

Syntactic ambiguity, also called amphiboly or amphibology, is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to ambiguous sentence structure.

Syntactic ambiguity arises not from the range of meanings of single words, but from the relationship between the words and clauses of a sentence, and the sentence structure underlying the word order therein. In other words, a sentence is syntactically ambiguous when a reader or listener can reasonably interpret one sentence as having more than one possible structure.

In legal disputes, courts may be asked to interpret the meaning of syntactic ambiguities in statutes or contracts. In some instances, arguments asserting highly unlikely interpretations have been deemed frivolous.

Different forms

Globally ambiguous

A globally ambiguous sentence is one that has at least two distinct interpretations. In this type of ambiguity, after one has read or heard the entire sentence, the ambiguity is still present. Rereading the sentence cannot resolve the ambiguity because no feature of the representation (i.e. word order) distinguishes the distinct interpretations. Global ambiguities are often unnoticed because the reader tends to choose the meaning he or she understands to be more probable. One example of a global ambiguity is "The woman held the baby in the green blanket." In this example, the baby could be wrapped in the green blanket or the woman could be using the green blanket as an instrument to hold the baby.

Locally ambiguous

A locally ambiguous sentence is a sentence that contains an ambiguous phrase but has only one interpretation. The ambiguity in a locally ambiguous sentence briefly persists and is resolved, i.e., disambiguated, by the end of the utterance. Sometimes, local ambiguities can result in "garden path" sentences, in which a structurally sound sentence is difficult to interpret because one interpretation of the ambiguous region is not the ultimate coherent interpretation.


The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose.Henry VI (1.4.30), by Shakespeare
Amphiboly occurs frequently in poetry, sometimes owing to the alteration of the natural order of words for metrical reasons. The sentence could be taken to mean that Henry will depose the duke, or that the duke will depose Henry.
Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est.Edward II by Marlowe
According to legend, Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March famously plotted to murder Edward II of England in such a way as not to draw blame on themselves, sending a famous order in Latin which, depending on where the comma was inserted, could mean either "Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good" or "Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear":
I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola.Lola by Ray Davies
Can mean "Lola and I are both glad I'm a man", or "I'm glad Lola and I are both men", or "I'm glad I'm a man, and Lola is also glad to be a man". Ray Davies deliberately wrote this ambiguity into the song, referring to a cross-dresser.
John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope.
Who is on the mountain? John, the man, or both? Who has the telescope? John, the man, or the mountain?
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, son of Berekiah, son of Iddo, the prophet.
Is the prophet Zechariah or Iddo?

Aristotle writes about an influence of ambiguities on arguments and also about an influence of ambiguities depending on either combination or division of words:

... if one combines the words 'to write-while-not-writing': for then it means, that he has the power to write and not to write at once; whereas if one does not combine them, it means that when he is not writing he has the power to write.
Aristotle, Sophistical refutations, Book I, Part 4

In headlines

Newspaper headlines are written in a telegraphic style (headlinese) which often omits the copula, creating syntactic ambiguity. A common form is the garden path type. The name crash blossoms was proposed for these ambiguous headlines by Danny Bloom in the Testy Copy Editors discussion group in August 2009. He based this on the headline "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms" that Mike O'Connell had posted, asking what such a headline could be called.[1] The Columbia Journalism Review regularly reprints such headlines in its "The Lower Case" column, and has collected them in the anthologies "Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim"[2] and "Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge".[3] Language Log also has an extensive archive of crash blossoms, for example "Infant Pulled from Wrecked Car Involved in Short Police Pursuit".[4]

Many purported crash blossoms are actually apocryphal or recycled.[5] One celebrated one from World War I is "French push bottles up German rear";[6] life imitated art in the Second World War headline "Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans".[7]

Additional examples:

British left waffles on Falklands
Did the British leave waffles behind, or is there waffling by the British political left wing?
Somali Tied to Militants Held on U.S. Ship for Months.
Either the Somali was held for months, or the Somali was just now linked to militants who were held for months. One could also imagine rope was involved, at which point lexical ambiguity comes into play.
Landmine claims dog arms company[8]
A landmine claimed that a dog was providing weapons to a company, or a landmine laid claim to (or destroyed) a company producing weapons (or prosthetic arms) for canines, or assertions about landmines were causing concern to a weapons supplier.

In humor and advertising

Syntactic or structural ambiguities are frequently found in humor and advertising. One of the most enduring jokes from the famous comedian Groucho Marx was his quip that used a modifier attachment ambiguity: "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I don't know."

More than one movie has used the comic line "The peasants are revolting," which allows an interpretation of revolting as both a verb or adjective. In the realm of advertising and marketing, one of the enduring advertisements for Glad garbage bags states "Don't Get Mad. Get Glad." In this advertisement the phrase "Get Glad" could be interpreted as having a linking verb followed by an adjective or as having a transitive verb followed by a noun direct object (the garbage bags from the Glad company).

Significantly enough, structural ambiguities may be created by design when one understands the kinds of syntactic structures that will lead to ambiguity, however for the respective interpretations to work, they must be compatible with semantic and pragmatic contextual factors.[9]

Syntactic and semantic ambiguity

Further information: Polysemy

In syntactic ambiguity, the same sequence of words is interpreted as having different syntactic structures. In contrast, semantic ambiguity is where the structure remains the same, but the individual words are interpreted differently.[10][11]


Competition-based models

Competition-based models hold that differing syntactic analyses rival each other during syntactic ambiguity resolution. If probabilistic and linguistic constraints offer comparable support for each analysis, especially strong competition occurs. On the other hand, when constraints support one analysis over the other, competition is weak and processing is undemanding. After van Gompel et al.’s experiments (2005), the reanalysis model has become favored over competition-based models. Convincing evidence against competition-based models includes the fact that globally ambiguous sentences are easier to process than disambiguated sentences, signifying that there is no competition of analyses in a globally ambiguous sentence. Plausibility tends to support one analysis and eliminate competition. However, the model has not been completely rejected. Some theories hold that competition contributes to processing complications, if only briefly.[12]

Reanalysis model

According to the reanalysis model, processing difficulty occurs once the reader has realized that their sentence analysis is false (with regards to the already adopted syntactic structure), and they must then return and reevaluate the structure. Most reanalysis models, like the unrestricted race model, are serial in nature, which implies that only one analysis can be evaluated at a time.

Consider the following statements:

  1. "The dog of the woman that had the parasol was brown."
  2. "The woman with the dog that had the parasol was brown."
  3. "The dog with the woman that had the parasol was brown."

Research from van Gompel et al. (2005) supports the reanalysis model as the most likely reason for why difficulty occurs in processing these ambiguous sentences. Results of many experiments tracking the eye-movements of subjects has demonstrated that it is just as difficult to process a globally ambiguous statement (1) as an unambiguous statement (2 and 3) because information before the ambiguity does not provide a strong bias for either syntactic possibility. Additionally, globally ambiguous sentences are as simple to process as syntactically unambiguous sentences.[13]

Unrestricted race model

The unrestricted race model states that analysis is affected prior to the introduction of ambiguity and affects which meaning is adopted (based on probability) before multiple analyses are able to be introduced. Van Gompel and Pickering refer to the unrestricted race model explicitly as a two-stage reanalysis model. In contrast to constraint-based theories, only one analysis is constructed at a time. Because only a single analysis is available at any time, reanalysis may sometimes be necessary if information following the initial analysis is inconsistent with it.[14]

However, the name "unrestricted race" comes directly from its adopted properties of the constraint based models. As in constraint-based theories, there is no restriction on the sources of information that can provide support for the different analyses of an ambiguous structure; hence it is unrestricted. In the model, the alternative structures of a syntactic ambiguity are engaged in a race, with the structure that is constructed fastest being adopted. The more sources of information support a syntactic analysis and the stronger the support is, the more likely this analysis will be constructed first (Van Gompel and Pickering, 2000).[15]

Children and adults: differences in processing

Children interpret ambiguous sentences differently from adults due to lack of experience. Children have not yet learned how the environment and contextual clues can suggest a certain interpretation of a sentence. They have also not yet developed the ability to acknowledge that ambiguous words and phrases can be interpreted multiple ways (Huang and Snedeker).[16] As children read and interpret syntactically ambiguous sentences, the speed at which initial syntactic commitments are made is slower in children than in adults. Furthermore, children appear to be less skilled at directing their attention back to the part of the sentence that is most informative in terms of aiding reanalysis (Joseph and Liversedge, 2013).[17] Other evidence attributes differences in interpreting ambiguous sentences to working memory span. While adults tend to have a higher working memory span, they sometimes spend more time resolving the ambiguity but tend to be more accurate in their final interpretation. Children, on the other hand, can decide quickly on an interpretation because they consider only the interpretations their working memory can hold.[18]

See also


  1. Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Crash Blossoms", New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2010 online text
  2. Gloria Cooper, ed., Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim, and other flubs from the nation's press, Dolphin Books, 1980, ISBN 0-385-15828-9
  3. Gloria Cooper, Red tape holds up new bridge, and more flubs from the nation's press, Perigee Books, 1987. ISBN 0-399-51406-6
  4. "Language Log".
  5. 1997 Headlines at
  6. Mayes, Ian (2000-04-13). "Heads you win: The readers' editor on the art of the headline writer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2009-06-05.
  7. Fritz Spiegl, What The Papers Didn't Mean to Say Scouse Press, Liverpool, 1965
  8. "The Guardian". May 14, 2002.
  9. Oaks, Dallin D., Structural Ambiguity in English: An Applied Grammatical Inventory, 2 vols., Continuum, London, 2010.
  10. Layman E. Allen "Some Uses of Symbolic Logic in Law Practice" 1962J M.U.L.L. 119, at 120;
  11. L.E. Allen & M.E. Caldwell "Modern Logic and Judicial Decision Making: A Sketch of One View" in H.W. Baade (ed.) "Jurimetrics" Basic Books Inc., New York, USA, 1963, 213, at 228
  12. van Gompel, Roger P.G.; Pickering, Martin J.; Pearson, Jamie; Liversedge, Simon P.; et al. (4 January 2005). "Evidence against competition during syntactic ambiguity resolution". Journal of Memory and Language. 52 (2): 284. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2004.11.003.
  13. van Gompel, Roger P.G.; Pickering, Martin J.; Pearson, Jamie; Liversedge, Simon P.; et al. (4 January 2005). "Evidence against competition during syntactic ambiguity resolution". Journal of Memory and Language. 52 (2): 284. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2004.11.003.
  14. Van Gompel, Roger P.G. "Evidence against Competition during Syntactic Ambiguity Resolution." Journal of Memory and Language. 2nd ed. Vol. 52. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 284-307. Print.
  16. Yi Ting Huang; Jesse Snedeker. "The use of referential context in children's online interpretation of adjectives" (PDF). Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  17. Holly S. S. L. Joseph; Simon P. Liversedge. "Children's and Adults' On-Line Processing of Syntactically Ambiguous Sentences during Reading". PLOS ONE. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  18. Maryellen C. MacDonald; Marcel A. Just. "Working memory constraints on the processing of syntactic ambiguity". ScienceDirect. Retrieved 17 November 2013.

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