December 14, 2006

Help corrupt Iraqi police

When illustrating structural ambiguity, linguists usually reach for the classic example Arnold Zwicky and Jerry Sadock gave: We saw her duck. Nice and short. The ambiguity of the syntactic structure stems from the interaction of at least two facts: (1) duck has a double life, as both a noun ("member of a bird species in the Anatidae family") and a verb ("quickly lower one's head as if to hide or avoid a missile"), and (2) her is both the genitive form and the accusative form of the 3rd person singular feminine pronoun. But it is hardly necessary to invent examples as long as CNN goes on publishing headlines like the one a correspondent just pointed out to me (thanks, Kelly): Leahy wants FBI to help corrupt Iraqi police force. Here the ambiguity arises from corrupt being both an adjective and a verb. There's a long tradition of ambiguous headlines of this sort in the newspaper business,of course, and we linguists are grateful for all of them. The most famous example is probably the one that became the title of the 1980 book Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim, and Other Flubs from the Nation's Press.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 14, 2006 02:33 PM