Often presented to students as a linguistic puzzle, the above sentence demonstrates grammatical ambiguity. Where written language lacks the critical element of a human expressing it, punctuation serves as a necessary substitute for intonation, stress, and pauses used in speech.
Disambiguated, the sentence reads, “It is true for all that, that that “that,” which that “that” refers to, is not the same “that” that that “that” refers to.”
If still unclear, this may help to unravel its meaning: “It is true, despite everything you say, that this word to which this word refers, is not the same word to which this word refers.”
Ambiguity in language appears in a variety of ways, intentional or not, with some cases more celebrated than others. Consider the difference between the ‘suggestive’ language of poetry and a ‘misleading’ advertisement. Ambiguity can be the result of an absurd juxtaposition or the sudden and hilarious turn in a comedian’s routine. In a world where transparency and clarity seem to be the goal, we are often on guard against social uncertainty, while at the same time giving ourselves wholly to the lyrics in a favorite song – whether we completely understand them or not.
To understand how language works, linguists differentiate lingual ambiguity into a variety of categories, including lexical (words and their definitions), syntactic (words in context), phonological (the sounds of words), and semantic (meaning in language and logic). The research goes further into the field of neurolinguistics; the playground of cognitive scientists who study the neural mechanisms in the human brain that control the comprehension, production, and acquisition of language.
For case studies, there’s no better place to begin than with toddlers, whose rapid acquisition of language brings about valiant but flawed attempts at language construction. Pity the poor parents who, upon pain of an emotional meltdown, must mentally sort compound mashes that only an emphatic toddler can construct.
“The father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boy says, ‘What did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?'”
Or consider a casual conversation where one might ask for clarification to fully understand.
A: Alice told her mother she won the lottery.
B: Who won the lottery?
There is a type of sentence known as a ‘garden-path sentence.’ Such sentences are grammatically correct but are often misinterpreted on first read. By definition, they lead you down an unpredictably wrong path. Henry Fowler, known for A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), stated that such sentences unwittingly lay a “false scent.” The first two examples below are simply reduced relative clauses that omit ‘who, which, or that.’ The second two fall into the category of syntactical ambiguity. While a garden-path sentence will give some pause, such sentences make others absolutely livid!
I convinced her children are noisy. (I convinced her that children are noisy.)
The florist sent the flowers was pleased. (The florist who was sent the flowers was pleased.)
The man who hunts ducks out on weekends. (The man who hunts, ducks out on weekends.)
The old man the boat. (The elderly manage the boat.)
At the crossroads of lingual uncertainty and clarity sits humor. A good comedian is a master manipulator of such language. Combined with comical timing, a standup artist uses the sometimes ambiguous nature of language to trip confusion and, in turn, make you laugh. It’s a linguist’s pleasure to understand the mechanics of humor and how ambiguity, from set-up to punch line, fuels a comedic routine.
Lexical ambiguity, which is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word, is the anchor of many children’s riddles and wordplay. One of the first jokes I remember telling was, “Why is the corn angry at the farmer? Because he keeps pulling their ears.” I might have found this especially funny at the time because my own father was an ear-puller.
Syntactical ambiguity, the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words, is part of many comedians’ strategies for surprising their audience.
Phonological ambiguity occurs when words sound identical but have different meanings. The standup talents, Abbot and Costello, rely on this confusion in their legendary “Who’s on First?” comedy routine. Likewise, the puzzling aspect of the sentence, “Rose rose to put rose roes on her rows of roses,” rests on a series of homophonous words. When rewritten for clarity, the sentence is far less lyrical or interesting: “A woman named Rose got up to put red fish eggs on the bands of flowers after which she was named.”
There are occasions when syntactical ambiguity enters more sober spheres. Cognitive confusion occurs when it’s difficult to determine if a newspaper headline is purposefully being humorous or not. Headline-ese relies on loaded words and expressions to attract a reader’s attention. This, and a stringent need for lexical brevity, can result in unintended smirking and chortling.
The Last Word
The brain has a particular response to semantic incongruities as well. Sometimes known as senseless or absurd sentences, they result in what some call an absurdist’s humor. The Flaming Lips used this brand of ambiguity in their song, “She Don’t Use Jelly” from the album, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, to drive a light-hearted song about friends with peculiar habits:
I know a girl who thinks of ghosts
She’ll make ya breakfast
She’ll make ya toast
But she don’t use butter
And she don’t use cheese
She don’t use jelly
Or any of these
She uses Vaseline
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