Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Only One Cause

Posted by Neal on June 16, 2013

“Whoa, Dad,” Doug said, turning away from his online summer English class. “Ambiguity strikes!” Of course, I couldn’t ignore that. I went over to check out his computer monitor. As it turned out, he was right. Here was the question from the quiz in the unit on “Plot”:

There can be only one ... can't there?

“Effects do not occur within a bubble”? What kind of bubble? I thought there was a lot of science about the kind of things that went on in soap bubbles. Yeah, that one was probably false.

Oh, wait, they meant figuratively. Effects have other effects, or something like that. Well, in that case, it would be true. However, that wasn’t the ambiguity Doug was talking about. He’s got no problem with the literal-figurative thing. He was looking at item D.

“An effect can … have only one cause,” he explained, “or it can have … only one cause.”

I rephrased in linguist-talk: “It’s possible that an effect has only one cause, or there is only one cause that any event can have. Wow, that’s a nice scope ambiguity.”

I remembered the scope ambiguity I encountered in a biology test when I was about Doug’s age–another one involving can, but interacting with a negation instead of only. Anyway, the ambiguity in this question turned out not to pose much of a problem. With wide-scoping can, i.e.

It is possible that an effect has only one cause.

Well, that’s probably true. And so are items B and C, which would mean that all four items are true, leaving Doug with no false statement to choose. Unless item A was talking about actual bubbles after all, in which case we should really look into the physics of bubbles… On the other hand, with wide-scoping only, i.e.

There is only one cause that any event can have.

the answer is clearly false. Bingo!

What a difference context can make, though. When my college friend Cali made me go and see Highlander with him, there was never a question whether can or only was supposed to take wide scope in the tagline “There can be only one.” Wide-scoping can would have really deflated the conflict, which Doug’s English course has taught him is an essential for any plot.

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