Before It Starts
Posted by Neal on February 14, 2010
During this game one player read me a puzzle in which the protagonist can tell people the score of any football game before it starts. The puzzle was to figure out how.
I asked whether the answer involves an ambiguity in the English language. The other player replied that it did not. I remarked that this rules out the answer I was thinking of, that the score of any football game before it starts is always 0-0 because the game hasn’t started yet. The other player replied that this is the correct answer, but that he would not have said it involves an ambiguity in the language.
Adrian, of course, was right. This is an attachment ambiguity involving the phrase before it starts. I’m going to follow Geoff Pullum’s analysis of subordinating conjunctions like before, and classify them as prepositions that can take either noun phrases or sentences as their objects. So before it starts will be a prepositional phrase. Under the “how is that possible?” reading, it attaches up high, to the entire verb phrase tell people the score of any football game, as in this diagram here:
Under the “who cares?” reading, it attaches down low, modifying the nominal score of any game. (I’ve accidentally labeled score of any game as N instead of Nom, but I’m not going to redo it now.)
To me, it’s a mystery how someone could deny that this involves an ambiguity in the language, when to my way of thinking it involves a rather prototypical example of one. What do people think “ambiguity in the language” means? I can only suggest that the incident supports Geoff Pullum’s observation that most people think of language as a big bag of words — hence, to them, an ambiguity in the language can only mean an ambiguity in a word.
[I]t’s interesting as an example of how most people are not accustomed to thinking about language in the way that a linguist would: they think of it in terms of vocabulary rather than syntax. Later in the game there was another puzzle of which [the other player] remarked that he would say it involved an ambiguity in the language: but in that case it was a simple case of polysemy, which reinforces my interpretation of the incident.
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