Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Killing His Wife for the Second Time

Posted by Neal on October 21, 2008

The Ridger wrote about this headline in a post I linked to a couple of weeks ago:

Jury Convicts New York Man of Killing Wife for the Second Time

Funny low attachment

Funny low attachment

Serious high attachment

Serious high attachment

She identified three different ways the headline could be true. First of all, there’s the low-vs.-high attachment ambiguity. The low-attachment reading is the strange one, suggesting that the man killed his wife, she came back from the dead, and he killed her again. The syntactic structure that goes with this reading is diagrammed on the left, with for the second time modifying just the gerund phrase killing [his] wife.

The high-attachment reading is the one in which the man is convicted twice for murdering his wife. (The Ridger explains: According to the news article, he was convicted once, but the first verdict was overturned.) It is diagrammed on the right, with for the second time modifying the larger VP convicts a man of killing his wife.

On top of this ambiguity is the unresolved question of whether we’re talking one wife or two. If the man remarried after murdering his first wife, then the low-attaching reading is not nonsensical after all. This same goes for the high-attaching, two-convictions reading: He could have been convicted once for murdering wife #1, and convicted a second time for murdering wife #2.

When I linked to The Ridger’s post, I called this a four-way ambiguity, but in the comments I mentioned that I didn’t think the question of how many wives was a true ambiguity. The Ridger doesn’t think so, either; her opinion is that “people with too much time on their hands … pretend it is.” So why isn’t it a true ambiguity?

I’ll focus on just the two-killings reading to illustrate. To make it easier, I’ll just go with X killed his wife for the second time. Translating it into quasi-logical notation, we can write it as

exist times T1, T2, such that

  1. at T1, exists y such that wife-of(X, y) & kill(X, y)
  2. at T2, exists z such that wife-of(X, z) & kill(X, z)

For this to be true, all that is necessary is that there be an individual y at T1 who is X’s wife, and an individual z at T2 who is X’s wife. y and z could be the same person, but they don’t have to be. That’s not an ambiguity; it’s different situations that would make an utterance true, just like I ate a sandwich could be true whether I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and onion. Semanticists refer to this kind of non-ambiguity as vagueness.

You know, now that I’ve explained all that, a different kind of ambiguity has occurred to me. The sentence could also be true in a world where it’s OK to kill your spouse once, but illegal to do it more than once, and the jury convicted the man for killing one wife too many. I’m not sure what to blame for that ambiguity, but I think it’s the same kind of thing that goes on in a sentence like

He got a speeding ticket for going less than 100mph.

The most easily accessible reading is the weird one, in which it is illegal to go less than 100mph. But I’ve also read a sentence like this in a news article describing a situation like this one: The speed limit was 65; the driver was doing 85; 85 is less than 100; therefore, the driver got a ticket for going less than 100 miles per hour. Further thoughts on this kind of ambiguity will have to wait until a later post.

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4 Responses to “Killing His Wife for the Second Time”

  1. The Ridger said

    That could work if you had a two-tiered system: for speeding you get a ticket BUT for exceeding 100mph you get jail time.

  2. The Ridger said

    One of the odd things about this is how natural the low attachment would be with a different crime – say, robbing a store.

  3. Neal Goldfarb said

    Why doesn’t the one-wife-versus-two raise a potential de re/de dicto (or referential/attributive) ambiguity? On the de re (referential) reading, there is only one wife. On the de dicto (attributive) reading, there could be either one or two.

    I’m not sure I see this as an issue of vagueness rather than ambiguity, and I don’t think the sandwich analogy is valid. PB&J and chicken are two different *kinds* of sandwiches, but (cf. different kinds of wives — tall, short, Democrat, feminist, Jewish, etc.). The question regarding the one-wife-versus-two issue is whether there are two *tokens* of wife.

    Also, while I don’t know much about formal logic, isn’t there a problem with using a single variable (X) for husband-at-time-1 and husband-at-time-2 but different variables for wife(de_dicto)-at-time-1 (y) and wife(de_dicto)-at-time-2?

  4. Neal said

    That’s a good question about de dicto/de re. I’ll have to take some more time to see if that could generate the different readings here.

    I still stand by my analogy, but only take it as far as I wrote in the post, not so far as to claim it’s as close an analogy as you have me saying.

    As for the X: That was a poorly chosen symbol by me. I didn’t mean for it to be a variable; if I had known the convicted guy’s name (say, Bob), I would have had wife-of(Bob, y) and kill(Bob, y), etc.

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