January 27, 2004

Minding and not minding ambiguity

In a recent note to a linguistics-related mailing list, a student is looking for a sentence ambiguator (he means sentence disambiguator). This puts me in mind of the Amelia Bedelia series of children's books, where the title character is forever plagued by sense ambiguity. (She dusts the furniture by spreading dust on it, puts out the lights by taking them outside, etc. Wonderful stuff, linguistically and otherwise. Makes for fun exam questions.)

It also occurs to me to wonder if there might be some government funding right now for development of a good sentence ambiguator. I'm sure that there would be a great deal of utility in a tool to subtly rewrite government communications in order to ambiguate official statements concerning the reasons for going to war in Iraq, the anticipated size of the budget deficit, etc.

By the way, the student concludes with a request to "please mind my English". In addition to being very conscientious, this is kind of neat, because he could just as easily have said "please don't mind my English". Sense ambiguity again: mind as "be on one's guard; be cautious or wary about; be alert to" (WordNet sense 5) versus "be offended or bothered by; take offense with, be bothered by" (sense 1).

Posted by Philip Resnik at January 27, 2004 12:17 PM