Ambiguity strikes home

“A low-income family will be less able to buy books and more likely to live in a neighborhood with fewer public libraries, which serve larger populations and contain fewer books that are in worse physical condition than those in middle-class areas.”

That’s from p. 116 of my book, but what does the part in bold mean?

  • fewer books, which are also in worse condition, than in middle-class libraries.
  • fewer books in poor condition than in middle-class libraries.

I meant the first interpretation, of course.

This kind of sentence-level ambiguity—where a sentence (or part of one) is consistent with two interpretations—has been studied since the early days of psycholinguistics, in the 1960s.

Chomsky used them to illustrate the concept of deep vs. surface structure: an ambiguous sentence like:

Jane had worn old tennis shoes.

has one surface structure—sequence of words—but two deep structures:

Jane had worn [old tennis shoes]    (what Jane had worn)
Jane had [worn old tennis shoes]    (what Jane possessed)

Writers focus on the intended message, sometimes overlooking an unintended one.  We have this to thank for Jay Leno-era headline humor:

Include Your Children When Baking Cookies

Drunks Get Nine Months in Violin Casexa

Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Teacher Strikes Idle Kids

Ambiguity Strikes Home

Ad infinitum

No harm done, but I wish I had caught it!

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