Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Before It Starts

Posted by Neal on February 14, 2010

Regular reader Adrian Morgan (you know him as the Flesh-Eating Dragon of The Outer Hoard) wrote to me about playing a game called MindTrap with some members of his family. He said:

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:

The How-is-that-possible? parse

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.)

The Who-cares? reading

Adrian continues:

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.

2 Responses to “Before It Starts”

  1. I agree with Adrian’s observation. Non-linguists don’t “see” syntax and don’t reflect on it as much as they reflect on individual words.

    A small question regarding the who-cares reading. Why have you decided that “before it starts” modifies “score of any game” and not just “game” or “football game”? I would have attached it two levels lower in the syntax tree: [score [of any football game [before it starts]]].

    • Neal said

      Interesting; it hadn’t occurred to me to attach before it starts there. The meaning of score … before [the game] starts would be the value of the score during the interval of time that ends when the game begins. The meaning of game before it starts would be akin to the meaning of Neal before he was conceived. I don’t know if such a meaning is defined.

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