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, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #422

What’s going on? Words like every and some, as well as others like a/an, a few, several, much, many, a lot of, most, any, each, all, and so on are known as quantifiers, and the relationship between them is known as scope. 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, creating several different possible interpretations for the sentence, a phenomenon known as quantifier scope ambiguity (or more generally just scopal ambiguity). 

In most cases, we interpret potentially-ambiguous sentences without problems based on our knowledge of the world; however, particularly if you’re writing without a lot of context or in a reduced style such as a headline, you may want to double-check or get someone to read over your work to make sure you’re not saying something you didn’t intend! 

Alternatively, if you’re considering a career as a comedian, ambiguities like this can be a great way of subverting people’s expectations and thereby creating humor. 

This article was written by Gretchen McCulloch who blogs at All Things Linguistic. Check out her site for other great posts.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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