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Syntactic ambiguity

Posted by plebius

In linguistics Syntactic ambiguity (aka structural ambiguity) is a type of linguistic ambiguity that arises as a result of the structure or syntax of a sentence.


"The killing of tyrants is justified"
"Squad helps dog bite victim"

Using structural diagrams, we can model this ambiguity.

           STRUCTURE A
      Subject     Predicate
       |               |
       |           Verb Phrase
       |            /      
       |         Verb      Object
       |          |           |
       |          |          / 
       |          |       Adj.  Noun
       |          |       |        
    Squad      helps  dog bite   victim

            STRUCTURE B
       Subject   Predicate
         /           |
        /          Verb phrase
       /             |
      |             / 
      |            /      
      |        Verb    Noun phrase 
      |         |         |
      |         |        / 
      |         |    Noun   Verb phrase
      |         |     |         |
      |         |     |        / 
      |         |     |    Verb   Object
      |         |     |      |       |
   Squad     helps  dog     bite    victim

This type of ambiguity is often exploited for humorous purposes. It can also lead to many misunderstandings. Some people such as hypnotist Milton H. Erickson used this type of ambiguity in their therapeutic practices. This and other types of ambiguity are posing major problems for people attempting Natural Language Processing.

Scope ambiguity is a type of syntactic ambiguity characterised by confusion over the role a word plays in the sentence. Example: Prostitutes appeal to Pope. There is some debate over whether scope ambiguity represents a unique type of ambiguity or whether it belongs to syntactic ambiguity or lexical semantic ambiguity.

Grouping ambiguity: This is a type of Syntactic ambiguity that is ambiguous because it is unclear whether a modifier in a sentence modifies only one or several objects. Example: Hand me the red and yellow balls. (Hand me the red ball and the yellow ball, Hand me the balls that are red and yellow)


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