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

Scope Ambiguity Is Common in Humor

Exploiting scope ambiguity is actually a fairly common device in humor. Here’s another example from a recent conversation that  I had about the surprisingly dangerous skills of deer: 

Every year, somebody’s dog gets killed by a deer. It’s always the same person. She never learns. You just shouldn’t have a Chihuahua in Churchill, Manitoba

Wait, how many dog-owners are involved? How many dogs? Are the dogs coming back to life? Let’s paraphrase the sentence again. It will make it sound a bit awkward, but it will also be easiest to see what I’m getting at:

Every year, someone owns some dog and that dog is killed by some deer. 

Wow, that’s complicated. We’ve got one every (every year) and three somes (some owner, some dog, and some deer). Let’s break it down. First, the most logical meaning of the sentence, where owner, dog, and deer are all different (option #1) or even that the owner and dog are different but there’s a single predatory deer in the neighborhood (option #2). 

Whenever you have more than one quantifier in a sentence, you have the potential for their scopes to interact with each other in multiple ways.

Next, we have the still fairly plausible option that the same owner keeps buying new dogs (the owner is an ill-fated chihuahua aficionado) and each year the new dog undergoes a tragic deer-related incident, whether all perpetrated by the same deer (option #3) or by different deer (option #4). 

With less probability but with greater entertainment value comes the possibility that the same owner has one dog that keeps resurrecting itself every year only to meet the same untimely fate, whether by the same deer each year (option #5) or by a different deer (option #6). 

Lastly and perhaps most bizarrely, we have the option that there’s this one dog that keeps resurrecting itself but that it finds a new owner every year, whereupon it meets its demise, again either at the hooves of one particular deer (option #7) or various different deer (option #8). 

Whew! And we got all of these meanings from the same sentence: Every year, someone’s dog gets killed by a deer. You might need to pause and puzzle it through for a minute, but they’re all possible. 


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.