Negative Structures(5): ambiguous sentence

A sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. Linguistic theories have identifies two main types of ambiguity.
A. Lexical ambiguity (semantic) : when a word has more than one generally accepted meaning
Some words like ‘bank’, ‘bear’, ‘note’ , ‘light’ are lexically ambiguous, as for :
Example: 1. The old man went to the bank.
May be interpreted as: a) The old man has gone to a financial establishment.
Or.................................b) The old man went to the bank of a river.
2. The princess can’t bear children.
a) The princess can’t have her own children.
b) The princess doesn’t like children around.
3. The office secretary took a note from the staff.
a) The office secretary took a short letter from the staff(member).
b) the office secretary took a note (musical) from the musical staff.
B. Syntactic ambiguity (structural-grammatical): occurs when a phrase or a sentence has more than one underlying structure which makes the sentence unclear, as in:
1. The girl hit the boy with a thick book.
May be interpreted as:
a) The girl hit the boy using a thick book. Or,
b) The boy with a thick book was hit by the girl.
2. Visiting old relatives are boring.
May be interpreted as:
a) It’s boring to visit old relatives. Or,
b) Old relatives who visit are boring.
3. Mr. Blake stood drinking in the moonlight.
May be interpreted as:
a) Mr. Blake stood drinking as he watched the moonlight. Or,
b) Mr. Blake stood drinking in (absorbing) the moonlight.

Lexical ambiguity is more common than synthetic ambiguity. However, confusions and misinterpretations can usually be avoided by reorganizing the sentence.

In a negative structure, ‘not’ can refer to different parts of a sentence, as in:
1. Philip didn’t call Bob today. – he sent an email to Bob
2. Philip didn’t call Bob today. – he called Tim
3. Philip didn’t call Bob today. – he called Bob yesterday.
But, the exact meaning of the sentence can be shown in speech by stress and intonation, and even in writing it is usually made clear from context and situation. Oftentimes when confusions arise, restructuring the sentences (as was said earlier) can usually be avoided.
Compare:
1. The strong poison didn’t kill him.( Did he live? Or, Did something else cause his death?)
Reorganized: It wasn’t the strong poison that killed him. ( Only one possible meaning.)
2, I know more beautiful women than Julia Roberts.
Reorganized: I know other women who are more beautiful than Julia.)

Negative sentences with ‘because’ – clauses are often ambiguous, as in:
Examples:
1. Fred wasn’t fired because he was very late. (Was he fired? Or, Wasn’t he?)
Clarified: He was fired because he embezzled money.
2, They didn’t move because they were expecting their third child.
Clarified: They moved because the house they were living in was too expensive for them.
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