12 March 2008

Linguistic Ambiguity (or, shooting people with telescopes)

Notice that sometimes sentences that are potentially ambiguous lack a possible meaning because it does not make sense from the perspective of how we understand the world....let us take [the word] gun and replace it with telescope, which produces Pat shot the soldier with the telescope [instead of Pat shot the soldier with the gun]. In this case it is plausible that the soldier that Pat shot has a telescope, and it is much less plausible that Pat used a telescope to shoot the soldier. Of course, it is possible in some imaginary world that we can use telescopes to shoot people. But notice that we are not likely to seize on this as a possible meaning, because in our everyday world such a telescope is not familiar to us.

Georgios Tsedernalis and Wai Yi Peggy Wong, editors. Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. 9th ed. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2004.

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