Chapter 6: Syntax

6.17 Trees: Structural ambiguity

In Section 5.9 we saw cases of structural ambiguity in morphology, 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.

Many cases of structural ambiguity in syntax involve modifiers in adjunct positions on one or both interpretations. Some of the practical implications of ambiguity are discussed in 8.3 Semantics and pragmatics in the legal domain.


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If you are following the alternative path through this chapter that interleaves core concepts with tree structures, the previous section was 6.16 Trees: Modifiers as adjuncts and the next section is 6.6 Clausal embedding.

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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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