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Title: Amphibology  
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Subject: Ambiguity, Index of philosophy articles (A–C), Mondegreen, Sum of Logic, Sophistical Refutations, Equivocation (disambiguation), Mad Gab
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"Amphibology" redirects here. For the mineral, see amphibole. For the study of amphibians (amphibiology), see amphibian.
For philosophical considerations of ambiguity, see ambiguity.

Syntactic ambiguity, also called amphiboly or amphibology, is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to ambiguous sentence structure.

Syntactic ambiguity arises not from the range of meanings of single words, but from the relationship between the words and clauses of a sentence, and the sentence structure implied thereby. When a reader can reasonably interpret the same sentence as having more than one possible structure, the text meets the definition of syntactic ambiguity.

In legal disputes, courts may be asked to interpret the meaning of syntactic ambiguities in statutes or contracts. In some instances, arguments asserting highly unlikely interpretations have been deemed frivolous.

Different forms of syntactic ambiguity

Globally ambiguous

A globally ambiguous sentence is one that has at least two distinct interpretations. After one has read the entire sentence, the ambiguity is still present. Rereading the sentence does not resolve the ambiguity. Global ambiguities are often unnoticed because the reader tends to choose the meaning he or she understands to be more probable.

One example of a global ambiguity is "The woman played with the baby in the green shirt." In this example, the baby could be wearing the green shirt or the woman could be wearing the green shirt.

Locally ambiguous

A locally ambiguous sentence is a sentence that contains an ambiguous phrase but has only one interpretation. The ambiguity in a locally ambiguous sentence briefly persists and is resolved by the end of the utterance.

One example of a local ambiguity is "The cat jumped over the fence stretched." The reader processes the sentence thinking that the verb phrase is "jumped" when the correct verb phrase is "stretched."


The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose.Henry VI (1.4.30), by Shakespeare
Amphiboly occurs frequently in poetry, owing to the alteration of the natural order of words for metrical reasons. The sentence could be taken to mean that Henry will depose the duke, or that the duke will depose Henry.
Eduardum occidere nolite timere bonum est.Edward II by Marlowe
According to legend, Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, famously plotted to murder Edward II of England in such a way as not to draw blame on themselves, sending a famous order in Latin which, depending on where the comma was inserted, could mean either "Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good" or "Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear":
I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola.Lola by Ray Davies
Can mean "Lola and I are both glad I'm a man", or "I'm glad Lola and I are both men", or "I'm glad I'm a man, and Lola is also glad to be a man". Ray Davies deliberately wrote this ambiguity into the song, referring to a cross-dresser.
The cow was found by a stream by a farmer.
Did the farmer find the cow near the stream? Or was the cow found near a stream that was near a farmer? Or did the stream find the cow near a farmer?
John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope.
Who has the telescope? John, the man on the mountain, or the mountain?
Flying planes can be dangerous.
Either the act of flying planes is dangerous, or planes that are flying are dangerous.
They are hunting dogs.
Either "they" are hunting for dogs, or those dogs are a type known as "hunting dogs".
The man was standing by the dog with a chew toy.
Who has the chew toy? The man or the dog?
Eye drops off shelf.
Describing eye drops that came from a shelf, an eye that fell from its location on a shelf, or an eye that delivered a shelf; Eye may refer to the organ used for seeing or the magazine Private Eye.
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, son of Berekiah, son of Iddo, the prophet.
Is the prophet Zechariah or Iddo?
Monty flies back to front.
Monty returns to the front line, Monty flies backwards, the Monty variety of flies are backwards, or the Monty variety of flies return to the front?
Rubber baby buggy bumpers.
Bumpers made of rubber designed for baby buggies, bumpers made for buggies that carry rubber babies, bumpers for rubber buggies that carry babies or bumpers for buggies made out of rubberized babies.
He asked the man who ate the sandwich.
Was the man who ate the sandwich asked, or was the question asked "Who ate the sandwich?"

In headlines


Many purported crash blossoms are actually apocryphal or recycled.[6] One celebrated one from World War I is "French push bottles up German rear";[7] life imitated art in the Second World War headline "Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans".[8]

Additional examples:

British left waffles on Falklands
Did the British leave waffles behind, or is there waffling by the British Left?
Stolen painting found by tree.
Either a tree found a stolen painting, or a stolen painting was found sitting next to a tree.
Little Hope Given Brain-Damaged Man
A brain-damaged man is unlikely to recover, or a brain-damaged man is causing another situation to have little hope of resolution, or someone gave a brain-damaged man to a small girl named Hope.
Somali Tied to Militants Held on U.S. Ship for Months.
Either the Somali was held for months, or the Somali was just now linked to militants who were held for months. One could also imagine rope was involved, at which point lexical ambiguity comes into play.)

An example according to Aristotle

Aristotle writes about an influence of ambiguities on arguments and also about an influence of ambiguities depending on either combination or division of words.

... if one combines the words 'to write-while-not-writing': for then it means, that he has the power to write and not to write at once; whereas if one does not combine them, it means that when he is not writing he has the power to write.

— Aristotle, Sophistical refutations, Book I, Part 4

Aristotle here - probably without knowing this - gives an excellent example of syntactic ambiguity.

Either then

He is (writing and not writing)


He writes, and is not writing.

In the first instance we are deprived of the correct understanding but in the second instance is emphasized literacy as a condition for writing.

Syntactic and semantic ambiguity

Template:See In syntactic ambiguity, the same sequence of words is interpreted as having different syntactic structures. In contrast, semantic ambiguity is where the structure remains the same, but the individual words are interpreted differently.[9][10]

Models of syntactic ambiguity

Competition-based models of syntactic ambiguity

Competition-based models hold that differing syntactic analyses rival each other during syntactic ambiguity resolution. If probabilistic and linguistic constraints offer comparable support for each analysis, especially strong competition occurs. On the other hand, when constraints support one analysis over the other, competition is weak and processing is undemanding. After van Gompel et al.’s experiments (2005), the reanalysis model has become favored over competition-based models. Convincing evidence against competition-based models includes the fact that globally ambiguous sentences are easier to process than disambiguated sentences, signifying that there is no competition of analyses in a globally ambiguous sentence. Plausibility tends to support one analysis and eliminate competition.  However, the model has not been completed rejected. Some theories hold that competition contributes to processing complications, if only briefly.[11]

Reanalysis model of syntactic ambiguity

Research from van Gompel et al. (2005) supports the reanalysis model as the most likely reason for why difficulty occurs in processing these ambiguous sentences. According to the model, processing difficulty occurs once the reader has realized that their sentence analysis is false (with regards to the already adopted syntactic structure), and they must then return and reevaluate the structure. Most reanalysis models, like the unrestricted race model, are serial in nature, which implies that only one analysis can be evaluated at a time.

Consider the following statements:

  1. "The dog of the woman that had the parasol was brown."
  2. "The woman with the dog that had the parasol was brown."
  3. "The dog with the woman that had the parasol was brown."

Results of many experiments tracking the eye-movements of subjects has demonstrated that it is just as difficult to process a globally ambiguous statement (1) as an unambiguous statement (2 and 3) because information prior to the ambiguity does not provide a strong bias for either syntactic possibility. Additionally, globally ambiguous sentences are as simple to process as syntactically unambiguous sentences.[12]

Unrestricted race model of syntactic ambiguity

The unrestricted race model states that analysis is affected prior to the introduction of ambiguity and affects which meaning is adopted (based on probability) before multiple analyses are able to be introduced. Van Gompel and Pickering refer to the unrestricted race model explicitly as a two-stage reanalysis model. In contrast to constraint-based theories, only one analysis is constructed at a time. Because only a single analysis is available at any time, reanalysis may sometimes be necessary if information following the initial analysis is inconsistent with it. [13]

However, the name "unrestricted race" comes directly from its adopted properties of the constraint based models. As in constraint-based theories, there is no restriction on the sources of information that can provide support for the different analyses of an ambiguous structure; hence it is unrestricted. In the model, the alternative structures of a syntactic ambiguity are engaged in a race, with the structure that is constructed fastest being adopted. The more sources of information support a syntactic analysis and the stronger the support is, the more likely this analysis will be constructed first (Van Gompel and Pickering, 2000).[14]

Children and syntactic ambiguity

Children interpret ambiguous sentences differently than adults due to lack of experience. Children have not yet learned how the environment and contextual clues can suggest a certain interpretation of a sentence. They have also not yet developed the ability to acknowledge that ambiguous words and phrases can be interpreted multiple ways (Huang and Snedeker).[15] As children read and interpret syntactically ambiguous sentences, the speed in which initial syntactic commitments are made is slower in children than in adults. Furthermore, children appear to be less skilled at directing their attention back to the part of the sentence that is most informative in terms of aiding reanalysis (Joseph and Liversedge, 2013).[16]

See also


External links

  • A detailed discussion of syntactic ambiguity
  • Differentiating syntactic ambiguity (structural ambiguity) from other types of ambiguity
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