Chapter 6: Syntax

6.17 Trees: Structural ambiguity

When we talked about compounds, we saw a first example of structural ambiguity: cases where the same string of morphemes can have more than one structure, with each structure corresponding to a different
interpretation.

The same thing is found in syntax. Consider the following example:

(1) I saw someone with a telescope.

This has two possible interpretations:

  1. I was using a telescope, and I saw someone. (PP modifies VP)
  2. I saw someone, and that person had a telescope. (PP modifies NP)

In the first interpretation, the prepositional phrase [PP with a telescope] modifies the verb phrase headed by saw. In the second interpretation, the same prepositional phrase modifies the noun phrase someone. These two structures are illustrated below:

Tree diagram: [I saw someone with a telescope], [with a telescope] is child and sibling of V'
Figure 6.22: Tree diagram showing [PP with a telescope] as an Adjunct of the verb, meaning “I used a telescope to see someone”.
Tree diagram: [I saw someone with a telescope], [with a telescope] is child and sibling of N' above [N someone]
Figure 6.23: Tree diagram showing [PP with a telescope] as an Adjunct of the NP object, meaning “I saw a person and that person had a telescope”

The same will be true for other cases of structural ambiguity—each meaning will correspond to a different potential tree structure.

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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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