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14 August 2005 @ 15:53
Stuff and sense  

The following New York Times headline apparently made Arnold Zwicky do a double-take:

G.I.'s Deployed in Iraq Desert With Lots of American Stuff

"For a moment, it looked like a scandalous story of desertion and plundering," Zwicky writes—until he realized that the Times meant the noun desert, not the verb. The article is talking about the various comforts of home available to U.S. military personnel stationed at bases in Iraq, not about soldiers absconding with materiel.

It's an unfortunately worded headline, especially since the ambiguity could have been eliminated quite simply by changing Iraq to Iraqi. But what I find interesting about it is that the headline as written, ambiguous as it is, does contain a major clue that should make the intended reading clear to the alert reader (viz., the reader who has already had at least one cup of coffee), though not necessarily at first glance. If this had really been a scandalous story of desertion and plundering, the Times would not have described the plundered items as "stuff," nor the quantity as "lots"; the colloquial phrasing flags this as a 'human interest' story. (The shudder quotes are there because I think the term 'human interest story' is silly; why would any newspaper ever run any story that wasn't of interest to human beings?)

But imagine trying to make a computer do what the alert reader does! The degree of pragmatic and stylistic knowledge needed to resolve this simple little part-of-speech ambiguity is unsettlingly deep and hard to anticipate. It's not enough to be able to notice the two possible parses of the sentence and to know that "lots of stuff" belongs to an informal register; you also have to know enough about the meanings of the two readings to know that one of them is much more likely than the other to be expressed informally in the context of a newspaper headline.

Also worth noting (from a human-interest point of view, as opposed to a computer-interest one) is the unexpandable abbreviation at the beginning. Pluralizing abbreviations is an ungainly thing to do, but there's usually a way out: if neither CDs nor CD's looks right to you, you can always write compact discs. But you can't do that with G.I.'s (or G.I.s or GIs or GI's); Government issues deployed in Iraq desert with lots of American stuff would mean something completely different.

lascribe on 14. August, 2005 13:51 (UTC)
My thought upon reading the post was that "lots of American stuff" sounds terribly vague for a NYT headline. I mean, why wouldn't they have "lots of stuff" -- we've all seen pictures and news reports of US soldiers in Iraq, so that's no surprise. And did anyone expect them to buy their equipment, clothes and gadgets on the Iraqi market?

(Maybe I need to read the article after all to grasp what they're getting at at the NYT.)
MC Dorks-A-Lotmrfishes on 14. August, 2005 20:58 (UTC)
You can't do that with G.I.'s (or G.I.s or GIs or GI's); Government issues deployed in Iraq desert with lots of American stuff would mean something completely different.

Well, if that were actually what GI stood for, that might be the case, but it's not---GI stands for General Infantry, for which the plural would just add -men.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 15. August, 2005 11:16 (UTC)

Here's what the OED has to say on the relevant senses of G.I.:

2. Abbrev. of government (or general) issue.
a. Used attrib. of equipment designed or provided for members of the armed forces of the U.S. and hence applied to things belonging to or associated with American servicemen;
b. As sb. An enlisted member of a U.S. armed force.

Sense 2b seems to have developed from 2a by clipping of G.I. Joe, and I don't think I've ever seen G.I. used in such a way as to suggest that it referred exclusively to infantry. So I'm inclined to suspect that general infantry is a backronym.

Henrytahnan on 15. August, 2005 12:28 (UTC)
Interesting--Merriam Webster's Third New International gives the etymology as
from unofficial abbreviation (used by United States Army quartermaster clerks in listing such articles as garbage cans) for galvanized iron, but taken to be abbreviation for government issue or general issue

I'm surprised to see MW and the OED diverge on what I would expect to be a well-documented piece of etymology.

The entry in MW also doesn't have the periods, which strikes me as sensible for something etymologically an acronym but which is now used without any sense of what it once stood for.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 16. August, 2005 11:39 (UTC)

Hm... the OED lists 'galvanized iron' as sense 1, with particular reference to rubbish bins (and, metaphorically, German artillery shells) but gives no indication of a connection between senses 1 and 2. Still, it's entirely possible that '{government, general} issue' is itself a backronym that then formed the basis for the various extensions.

Merlemerle_ on 20. August, 2005 11:33 (UTC)
A computer could not do much with that headline -- either interpretation is valid. This is why there is so much work being done in computational linguistics along the lines of inter-sentence anaphora resolution and plan-based reasoning. (or, at least, I assume there is a lot being done, because I keep stumbling on articles about it -- but it could just be that those articles attract my attention more than others)

Even your statement that there are clues "mak[ing] the intended reading clear to the alert reader" relies on a great deal of context. Or perhaps meta-context: instead of seeing what surrounds the sentence, you are looking at the types of sentences generally used as headlines, and the intentions of the editors.

I was going to say "ah, if only we could forcibly change language in such a way to force unique parsings" -- but that's not likely to go over well. Conversation would be much more of a chore, remembering to insert phrase-markers or the like. Besides, single-pass linear streams of data are not optimal for representing tree structures.