Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Rebellious Scots to crush
This is really a linguistics question. The lyrics of the national anthem have been in the news recently, which I suppose is what prompted the line "Rebellious Scots to crush" to saunter through my mind on the train today.

It's unpleasant however you read it, but it occurred to me that I was unsure of the scope of the exhortation. Is God being urged to crush some Scots (but only the rebellious ones), or to crush Scots in general (who are, as we know, rebellious)?

There must be many sentences that are similarly ambiguous. For example:

I love to eat tasty Italian pizza.

Does tasty describe Italian pizza in general here, or just the kind that the speaker loves to eat - while viewing less toothsome varieties with relative distaste?

I'm sure there's some linguistic terminology to describe this difference in the scope of adjectives, but I don't know it. nightspore?

Of course, if only the writer of the anthem had eschewed the ungainliness of dactylic dimeter in favour of good old iambic pentameter, as patronised by Shakespeare and Milton, a relative clause (with or without comma) would have resolved the issue:

Now crush the Scots who are rebellious

Now crush the Scots, who are rebellious

Talking of ambiguity, this morning as I was walking (at a stupidly early hour) through central Cardiff, I saw a newspaper headline that read, "Axes Used to Threaten Police". My immediate thought was, "Well, maybe they used to, but how is that news?"

Time for bed, I think.

Thanks for letting me start my day with a chuckle! Mostly, I'd guess the context would help with the ambiguity. Possibly that last bit might have been better as "Police threatened with axes", though some bloody-minded soul might say, "Is this referring to some police or the police force in general?" ;-) And there ARE horrible people out there determined to find ambiguity, even if they know perfectly well what the sentence means, such as a friend of mine who argued that I couldn't refer to "his seventeen year old farm hand, Fred" because that implied other farmhands of varying ages. Really!

So, here's my favourite, though the missing comma is what makes it hilarious: a magazine cover proclaiming that a certain woman takes great joy in cooking her family and dog. ;-)

Or that other parts of his body had different names or were of different ages. Hand, you know: hand.

a certain woman takes great joy in cooking her family and dog.

It will be a sad day when such headlines disappear from the earth. That one's in the foothills of Mt. Zeugma.

"I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say 'a green great dragon', but had to say 'a great green dragon'. I wondered why, and still do." - J.R.R. Tolkien

Adjective order is another can of worms. I know there are rules, because I learned them as an undergraduate (and forgot them shortly afterwords), but I don't think there were ever explanations.

Appositive vs. intersective modification. Wait, you don't get it?

Appositive means: just added adjectives that don't affect or reduce the set of things the adjective applies to. "I had some delicious chocolate," where "delicious" is a reminder that all chocolate is delicious. Or "Keep those disgusting anchovies away from me," which implies that I find all anchovies disgusting, not just the low-quality ones you are approaching me with.

Interactive means the intersection of the class of things the adjective applies to and the class of things the noun applies to. So "the big red house" applies only to the intersection of the sets of big things, red things, and houses.

Here's a good account:

In the meantime, I am looking for a different sort of ambiguity, between transitive and intransitive verbs. "That chicken is too sick to eat" might mean (transitively) that I won't eat it, or intransitively, that it has no appetite. This is a cause/diagnosis thing too, and I am looking for examples in the wild. So if you notice any.....

("Too big to fail" is a conceptual version of this. Banks are too big to fail not because their size makes them steady but because the government will not fail to save them from bankruptcy. "Fail" there isn't used transitively there, but it could be with a little tweaking. "Your essay is too original to fail," can mean: it's bound to make its own way; or I can't give you a failing mark on it.)

Thank you! I knew the geeks would have a word for it. I feel much better now, being able to name this particular grammatical demon.

I feel as if I come across transitive/intransitive ambiguities of that kind all the time, but of course my mind has gone blank. However, I'll keep an eye out and let you know next time I encounter one.

(Actually, I think your first example could be read transitively, in the sense of "To fail someone in their hour of need".)

Actually, this talk of apposition reminds me of a rarer but analogous kind of ambiguity, concerning the appositional possessive. When I used to go to Dublin regularly, I sometimes wondered whether "Dublin's fair city" was really just a way of calling the city fair, or whether it implied the existence of Dublin's Ugly City, access to which could be gained only via a staircase in Trinity College library - a parallel metropolis in which starveling children are set to make giant shamrocks for sale to American tourists in the Overworld. To be honest, I never found out the truth of it.

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You know, that's how I imagine I'd be if I ever found myself billeted in California.


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