Wednesday, January 06, 2010

WNW: Structural Ambiguity

One of my favorite assignments in college, no surprise, was in Dr. Oaks's class (if you've been here long enough, you know that he was my favorite professor). He was fascinated with the idea of structural ambiguity: that sometimes the way a sentence is put together can make the meaning unclear, giving it two or more possible meanings. He's even written a book on his years of researching the topic that will be going to press soon.

Our assignment took the entire semester, because we were to pay attention to speech (or television shows, movies, books, whatever) and find examples of structural ambiguity, then turn in our best examples (I want to say it was 50, but it might have been fewer). You can't come up with 50 good examples off the top of your head in the last three days of a semester. This really was something you had to be thinking about all the time and jotting down as you went.

A couple of examples I remember from class:

Using the word "little" in front of a word that could be either an adjective or a noun. Since "little" can mean both "small" and "somewhat," you end up with structural ambiguity:

It was a little antique.

In that sentence, we can't know whether we're looking at a small antique item or something that's marginally antique.

Out of context, there is no way to tell: structural ambiguity!

My favorite example from class was using a word that can be both an adjective and a verb at the end of the sentence. The resulting ambiguity was awesome:

The peasants are revolting.

So . . . either we have a revolution on our hands, or man, those poor folks really need a bath!

In daily life, we don't usually have a problem with structural ambiguity, because the sentences that could lead to confusion are within a context that clarify what we mean. We know whether we're discussing an antique chair (or a tiny little antique thimble or an early computer that's only kinda antique).

Outside of context, however, you can have all kinds of fun. This is a tool that sitcom writers use all the time for laughs: they have a character overhear something out of context, something with structural ambiguity, and the person interprets it totally wrong. The audience knows both meanings, including the correct one, and we get a big laugh, particularly if the misunderstanding draws the conflict on.

For me, there's a song I cannot hear without thinking of its structural ambiguity. I know full well what the song means, but it still drives me crazy.

The lyrics say:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone.

Meaning #1:
Now that the rain has passed, which was blurring my eyesight, my vision has cleared up.

Meaning #2:
My vision is all clear now, and as a result, I can detect that the rain is gone.

The difference is subtle--did the rain cause the vision to clear up, or is the speaker simply stating the facts that their vision is clear where it wasn't before and that now it's clear, they can tell the rain is gone?

I know which the song means, but it still makes me nuts, because my obnoxious brain can't hear the song without thinking of both meanings.

(Thanks, Dr. Oaks. I 'preciate that.)

18 comments:

dearfriend1 said...

That song always trips me up too---I still like it, but I notice it every time.

Kristina P. said...

Oooh, I love this. You make me things I have never really though about before. I sometimes don't like that. That means I have to think.

MommyJ said...

I can see all obstacles in my way...

Thought provoking indeed. I'll be looking for structural ambiguity all the time now!

One Cluttered Brain said...

Hubby does that to Me ALL the time. Structural Ambiguity can be a pain in my butt sometimes...

But thanks for the laugh as always!
I kinda like that song..but now hmm, you make a point....I will laugh now when I hear it..:D

Melanie J said...

I am so wishing that I had Dr. Oaks. It sounds like a seriously fascinating class.

L.T. Elliot said...

That song drives me nuts, too!

Oh, WNW, how happy I am to see you!!

InkMom said...

Ha! I've always had the same thought about that song. Why wasn't I taking Dr. Oaks' classes when I was at BYU? I really missed out!

And -- so glad to see you're speaking. I am too!

Kimberly Job said...

Almost every week in critique we get a laugh out of sentences like this. One of our favorites was when a character pushed his glasses up his nose. :)

Helena said...

My husband and I are fond of misplaced modifiers. A favorite example from one of his students: "Many people celebrate this holiday by making small, triangular dumplings. My grandmother is one of these."

DeNae said...

My favorite is one I use on my husband when he's being condescending:

"I'm not a complete idiot."

If I emphasize 'complete', it still means I'm an idiot, just not a total one.

If I emphasize 'idiot', then it means I may have misunderstood his mumbled response to the question of what he would like for dinner, but having done so does not secure me a place on the short bus, thank you very much!

(And InkMom, Annette, I'm speaking, too! Goodness, is anyone going just to listen? Or are we all speaking to each other?? JK, Motherboard...)

Annette Lyon said...

I just hope I'm not speaking at the same time as you two, because I want to hear you!

Blondie said...

So funny that you posted this today of all days!
Tonight at scripture time we read:
"And Alma did speak unto them when they were assembled together in large bodies"
The kids wanted to know if he was only preaching to fat people.

An Ordinary Mom said...

This class sounds like it would have been a blast!

Lara said...

Fascinating. I love when writers use this to their advantage, mostly for comedic reasons. :)

And, I am jealous of everyone going to the blog conference. I wish I could. :(

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

Very fun. I've always had the same thoughts about that song. It's irritating. Great post, by the way.

Jessica G. said...

I love the ambiguity. Makes for more interesting reading comprehension discussions. :)

Stephanie Humphreys said...

I have a very simple question for you. Could you explain the difference between much/many in a way that teenagers would understand? My kids always mix the two up and even though I get the rules and continually try to explain them, I just don't explain it well enough. So we decided to go to the expert for help :)

Annette Lyon said...

Stephanie, Good one! I'll address that soon on a WNW.

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