Syntactic ambiguity

Syntactic ambiguity

Syntactic ambiguity is a property of sentences which may be reasonably interpreted in more than one way, or reasonably interpreted to mean more than one thing. Ambiguity may or may not involve one word having two parts of speech or homonyms.

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 implied thereby. When a reader can reasonably interpret the same sentence as having more than one possible structure, the text is equivocal and meets the definition of syntactic ambiguity.

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.


Syntactic and semantic ambiguity

In syntactic ambiguity, the same sequence of words is interpreted as having different syntactic structures. In contrast, in semantic ambiguity, the structure remains the same, but the individual words are interpreted differently.[1][2]

In headlines

Newspaper headlines are written in a telegraphic style (headlinese) which often omits the copula and therefore lends itself to syntactic ambiguity, usually of the garden path type. The name 'crash blossoms' was proposed for these ambiguous headlines by Dan Bloom and Mike O'Connell in the Testy Copy Editors discussion group in August 2009 based on a headline "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms".[3] 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[4] and Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.[5]

Many purported crash blossoms are actually apocryphal or recycled.[6] One celebrated one from World War I is "French push bottles up German rear";[7] life imitated art in the Second World War headline "Eighth Army Push Bottles Up German Rear".[8]


Here are some examples:

The cow was found by a stream by a farmer. (Did the farmer find the cow near the stream? Or was the cow found near a stream that was near a farmer? Or did the stream find the cow near a farmer?)
Flying planes can be dangerous. (Either the act of flying planes is dangerous, or planes that are flying are dangerous.)
I know the people John knows. (Either I am acquainted with the same people as John is, or I know who John's acquaintances are.)
They are hunting dogs. (Either "they" are hunting for dogs, or those dogs are a type known as "hunting dogs".)
Eye Drops Off Shelf. (Describing eye drops that came from a shelf, an eye that fell from its location on a shelf, or an eye that delivered a shelf)
I'm going to sleep. ("Going" can be a verb with destination "sleep" or an auxiliary indicating near future. So it can mean "I am (now) falling asleep", "I am (in the future) intending to sleep" or "I am leaving (this event) to (go and) sleep")
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, son of Berekiah, son of Iddo, the prophet. (Which of the three is the prophet?)
The British left waffles on Falklands (Did the British leave waffles behind, or is there waffling by the British Left?)
Monty flies back to front. (Monty returns to the frontline, Monty flies backwards, the Monty variety of flies are backwards, or the Monty variety of flies retreat to the front?)
The Electric Light Orchestra (An orchestra of electric lights, or a light orchestra that's electric)
Stolen painting found by tree. (Either a tree found a stolen painting, or a stolen painting was found sitting next to a tree.)
I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola. (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 a man")
Rubber baby buggy bumpers. (Either they are bumpers made of rubber designed for baby buggies, or they are bumpers made for buggies which carry rubber babies.)
Little Hope Given Brain-Damaged Man (A brain-damaged man is unlikely to recover, or a brain-damaged man is causing another situation to have little hope of resolution, or someone gave a brain-damaged man to a small girl named Hope.)
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.)

The following is an example of scope ambiguity—which operator is logically 'above' the other. Some linguistic theories consider them syntactic ambiguities, while other linguistic theories consider them semantic ambiguities.

Someone ate every tomato. (Either some one person ate all of the tomatoes, or for each tomato there is some one person who ate it--Ariel ate one, John ate one, etc.)

Graphical representation of the simplest example

The sentence mentioned above, They are hunting dogs., can be represented as follows.

They are         



Aristotle writes that "genus has wider denotation than species and differentia."[9] By this wider denotation is meant for example that "both what is and what is not are objects of opinion, so that 'object of opinion' could not be species of being."[9] In the latter case would be violated the wider sense of the genus (also what isn't the genus would apply to species). Thus if "hunting" is wider than "They are", to "They are" (species) can't already apply that which is not "hunting" (genus).


They are         



"Dogs" are by such way excluded from "hunting" unlike the first table, and "They are" no longer has a connection to them.

See also


  1. ^ Layman E. Allen "Some Uses of Symbolic Logic in Law Practice" 1962J M.U.L.L. 119, at 120;
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ Ben Zimmer, "On Language: Crash Blossoms", New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2010 online text
  4. ^ Gloria Cooper, ed., Squad helps dog bite victim, and other flubs from the nation's press, Dolphin Books, 1980, ISBN 0385158289
  5. ^ Gloria Cooper, Red tape holds up new bridge, and more flubs from the nation's press, Perigee Books, 1987. ISBN 0399514066
  6. ^ 1997 Headlines at
  7. ^ Mayes, Ian (2000-04-13). "Heads you win: The readers' editor on the art of the headline writer". London: Guardian.,4273,4342940,00.html. Retrieved 2009-06-05. 
  8. ^ Fritz Spiegl, What The Papers Didn't Mean to Say Scouse Press, Liverpool, 1965
  9. ^ a b Topics by Aristotle, Book IV, Part 1, translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge online text

External links

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