Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

That’s What I Call an Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2008

Regular reader and fellow Ohio resident Ran Ari-Gur commented on a recent post:

I came across a (to-me interesting) example of grammatical ambiguity the other day. A news-person on the radio said, “P.E.I. is what Canadians call Prince Edward Island,” which I heard as “P.E.I. is what (=the thing/place that) Canadians call ‘Prince Edward Island.’” It took me a second to realize that the news-person had meant, “‘P.E.I.’ is what (=the name by which) Canadians call Prince Edward Island.” English doesn’t have too many verbs that link two object complements (though it does have a few: “call,” “term,” “name,” “label,” “find,” “consider,” …), so this kind of ambiguity doesn’t come up very often. My sense is that the reading he intended is only possible when the second complement (the term) has recently been mentioned, and this construction is by way of explaining it. (That was indeed the case here.)

His comment reminded me of exactly the same kind of confusion I had when Doug went on a Carmen Sandiego jag a couple of months ago. Carmen Sandiego is a game for PCs that teaches geography, and one time one of the questions Doug had to answer was:

What do people call the Sun City?

He asked me for help, and my first thought was, “I have no idea what Sun City is in the first place, and so how the heck would I know what people have nicknamed it?” I parsed it the same way I’d parse a sentence like

What do they call bell peppers and peanut butter cups in Ohio?

(Answer: green peppers and Reesey cups.) Only after a few seconds did I realize that Sun City must be the nickname, and that Doug was supposed to give the city (by its more conventional name) that Sun City referred to. I think it was some place in China.

Anyway, what, precisely, is the difference between the two interpretations of sentences like these? As Ran pointed out, the ambiguity is possible because the verb call takes two objects: call X Y. The first one, X, is the referent, i.e. the actual person, place, thing, or whatever else it may be, that we’re talking about. The second one, Y, is what you’re calling it. The tree on the right diagrams this kind of construction.




When you make one of those objects the focus of a question, it’s ambiguous as to which one you’ve lifted out. The tree on the left down below shows the parse that Ran initially gave the newscaster’s sentence (and I gave the Carmen Sandiego sentence), and the one on the right, the correct parse.












So why did Ran and I both take the less sensible parse at first, taking the NAME argument to be the REFERENT argument? It looks like an example of what linguists call garden path sentences: sentences that lead you down a path that seems to make sense, until you come to a word that you can’t fit into the structure you’ve been assembling and have to back up and try again. This case is slightly different, since the parse is completed successfully, but the unexpected meaning is the clue that something has gone wrong. Language users tend to go with the easiest parse first, and reconsider only when necessary, and here, the easier parse was the one that let us find a logical place for the wh word sooner. (There’s probably a word for this particular kind of seizing upon the earlier option; it might be early closure, but I think that term might be reserved for attachment ambiguities, like this one. If you know the term I’m looking for, please let us know in a comment.)

However, sentences like these don’t have to lead you down the garden path. If your referent NP is something that doesn’t qualify as a name, then there’s no danger of parsing it as one. For example:

  • What did you just call me/him/her/us?
  • What do you call this thing?
  • What do you call 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

And, of course, context can disambiguate, too. The sentence frame That’s what I call [NAME] won’t lead you astray, since the that will refer to an already salient object or situation the speaker wants to comment on, not some salient name for something. Or if that does refer to a name, it will be in a context like someone asking, “Schmoogie bear? What’s that?” and the speaker answering, “That’s what I call my wife.”

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3 Responses to “That’s What I Call an Ambiguity”

  1. Viola said

    Schmoogie bear? It’s really none of my business, but…Schmoogie bear? Hmmm…*contemplating the pronunciation of Schmoogie*

  2. The Ridger said

    Is “early immediate constituent processing” what you’re looking for?

    Your Carmen Sandiego parsing made sense to me, but the PEI one really didn’t. I guess it’s because I wouldn’t look for an abbreviation to be the referent instead of the name.

  3. TootsNYC said

    The reason you both made that mistake is because people do it all the time, and I keep taking it back OUT.

    The confusion between the *name* and the *thing* is something I actually test for on my copyediting tests. I want to hire people who will actually write, for the first time, “P.E.I. is what people call Prince Edward Island.”

    And this is also a case of not being able to pronounce punctuation or typeface.

    If this was in writing, and you read:

    P.E.I. is what Canadians call Prince Edward Island>

    you might understand it, bcs the italic would tell you that P.E.I. was being treated as a word, and not an object.

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