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English Language & Linguistics

English Language



Newspaper Ambiguity

Ambiguity, having more than one meaning, may be a result of syntax or of semantics.
Semantic ambiguity
depends on the meaning of a word or words which themselves can be misinterpreted.
S yntactic ambiguity
means that the grammatical construction of the phrase or sentence brings about the misinterpretation - the word order or the fact that a word could be either a noun or a verb, for example.
Metaphorical ambiguity occurs where the metaphor is taken literally - eg

"walls have ears"

In the example

"I know a man with a dog who has fleas"

it is unclear - ambiguous - whether it is the man or the dog who has fleas. It is the syntax not the meaning of the words which is unclear.

To clarify the meaning or meanings of an ambiguous sentence we can gloss the meaning (express it in a different form of words) or use grammatical terminology to explain the functions of the words and the structure of the sentence.
For example in the sentence

"Mine Exploded"

the gloss could be either "the object belonging to me exploded" or "the explosive device exploded".
Grammatically we can say that the first meaning has a structure of first person possessive pronoun + verb while the second meaning is noun + verb.

The humorous effect of ambiguity can be seen in newspaper headlines (below) and in graffiti - eg

from whom?

with every five gallons

this is not an instruction

Bill Stickers is innocent

On the eve of George Bush's visit to the UK in November 2003 Ceefax posted the following headline:


Spend a little while disentagling the semantic and syntactic ambiguities of that!

Here are newspaper headlines said to be genuine and published in 2002.

Decide whether the ambiguity is semantic or syntactic and if syntax is the problem explain using grammatical terminology

Crack Found on Governor's Daughter
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
Is There a Ring of Debris around Uranus?
Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
Miners Refuse to Work after Death
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

also classic headlines ...

Giant waves down Queen Mary's funnel

Sheep rustling in the hills

Do you want a woman vicar?

Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans

Handel's organ works

Villagers Grill Gas Men

Nigerian Talks in London

Doctors Review Body

Sikh Girl Wins Trouser Case

Blow for Musicians Union

Villa Face Cream of Italy

IRA Bomb Guts Factory

Foot To Head Joint Body

Star's Broken Leg Hits Box Office

Collect your own examples as you read - and if you are working with a partner who doesn't see the ambiguity, explain it clearly in grammatical terms!


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