May 28, 2007

Structural Ambiguity In the Courts

One of the hazards of rearranging books is that it is nearly impossible to pick up a book without opening it and reading a bit. This may be pleasant and instructive, but it does rather slow the process down. Anyhow, while attempting to arrange it I opened Peter Hay's The Book of Legal Anecdotes (New York: Facts on File. 1989) and at p. 256 came upon his account of the following discussion of the structural ambiguity of English noun phrases in a South Carolina court at the end of the nineteenth century. The exchange is between attorney James L. Pettigrew and a judge, who interrupted Pettigrew as soon as he stood to speak:

"Mr. Pettigrew, you have on a light coat. You cannot speak, sir."

"May it please the court, Your Honor,", Pettigrew replied, "I conform to the law."

"No, Mr. Pettigrew, you have on a light coat. The court cannot hear you."

"But, Your Honor," the lawyer insisted, "you misinterpret. The law says that a barrister must wear 'a black gown and coat', does it not?"

"It certainly does," said the judge.

"And does Your Honor hold that both the gown and the coat must be black?"

"Certainly, Mr. Pettigrew, certainly, sir."

"And yet it is also provided by law", Pettigrew continued, "that the sheriff must wear 'a cocked hat and sword', is it not?"

"Yes, yes", the judge replied impatiently.

"And does the court hold", Pettigrew went on calmly, "that the sword must be cocked as well as the hat?"

"Eh - er -h'm", mused His Honor, "you - er - may continue your speech, Mr. Pettigrew."

Note: Hay gives Pettigrew's name as Pettigrue, but it is spelled Pettigrew in all of the other sources I have seen.

Posted by Bill Poser at May 28, 2007 04:35 PM