Scopal Ambiguity: Messing With Words to Make Things Funny

Gretchen McCulloch explains why sentences like this are funny: A woman gives birth in the UK every 48 seconds. She must be exhausted.

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for
4-minute read

scopal ambiguity is funny.


Remember how last week we said that another whole thing is different from a-whole-nother thing? This week we’re going to talk about sometime similar: Sometimes a sentence doesn’t quite end up where you were expecting. For example, a recent tweet by James Martin goes like this: 

A woman gives birth in the UK every 48 seconds. She must be exhausted.

The ordinary way to interpret this sentence is for a woman to mean a different woman each time, but sure enough, if you think about it for a second, it could also refer to the highly improbable scenario in which the same woman gives birth 1800 times per day. At the risk of spoiling the joke, let’s look at how it is that we can get two meanings out of this one sentence, a situation that linguists refer to as scopal ambiguity. 

The sentence "Everybody loves somebody" has two possible readings.

Let’s go for a slightly simpler sentence to make these two meanings more clear. The sentence Everybody loves somebody has two possible readings. In the first reading, it’s true about all people that each of them has some person who they love, but it’s not necessarily the same person. In the second reading, there is some particular person whom everyone loves. 

Another way of saying this is that in the first reading, we interpret the every as having scope over the some (for every person…there is some other person…) while in the second reading, we interpret the some as having scope over the every (there is some person…whom every other person…). 

Or in more simplified notation: 



So if we go back to the original sentence, we can see the same two readings going on. I’m going to paraphrase them to make it a little more obvious. 

A woman gives birth in every 48 seconds is essentially equivalent to Some woman gives birth every 48 seconds. The first, logical reading, where every has priority over some, means that for every period of 48 seconds, there is some woman who gives birth (although not necessarily the same ). The second, humorous reading, where some has priority over every, means that for some particular woman, she gives birth every 48 seconds. 


About the Author

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for Grammar Girl

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She is the Resident Linguist at Wired and the co-creator of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics. She lives in Montreal, but also on the internet.