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19 Juni 2007 @ 23:07
Structural ambiguity in the basement  

One of the things I like to do, when introducing students to the idea that there's more to syntactic structure than just the order the words go in, is to expose them to sentences like (1), in which you can get two different meanings, depending on where you attach the prepositional phrase with cracks:

  1. The landlord painted all the walls with cracks (Hirst 1987: 172).

The nice thing about that particular example is that, as Hirst points out, people seem to get the silly, craquelure-with-malice-aforethought reading first, apparently preferring to assume that with, when it appears inside a verb phrase headed by a verb like paint, is being used in its instrumental sense to modify the whole verb phrase, and that only later do they get the sensible reading in which with cracks modifies the noun walls, telling you which ones the landlord painted. (My other favourite example is We sliced the pizza with the pepperoni.)

I was reminded of this, in a disturbing way, by an article in this morning's Star. The headline is in (2):

  1. Officer left messages for mistress buried in basement (Toronto Star, 19 June 2007, page A8)

As my eyes made the saccade from the end of the headline to the beginning of the first paragraph, my romantic imagination started anticipating the story. Workers clearing out the cellar of an old house, I thought, must have uncovered a cache of love letters that had been left there by some dashing young captain in one or another of the great wars of the last century. And now we have a touching and valuable piece of social history, a glimpse into the intimate lives of a couple from an earlier generation, living and loving in a time that maybe, just briefly, seems a little less remote—you can write the copy yourself. Anyway, the first sentence of the article came as a bit of a shock:

  1. A Toronto police officer kept phoning his longtime mistress, telling her how much he loved her, even though he knew she was dead and her body was walled up in his basement, a trial in Newmarket heard yesterday (ibid.).

Could I have been more wrong? The officer is a contemporary cop, not a long-dead captain in the military; the messages were voice-mail, not billets-doux; for mistress modifies left, not messages; and, grimly, buried in basement describes the mistress. For once I think of the sensible reading first, and the macabre one turns out to be right.

Prof. Bleen6_bleen_7 on 20. Juni, 2007 18:21 (UTC)
Funny—I read (2) first as the writer intended, but then thought, "No way could that mean what it says. The letters must have been buried in the basement." There is a third interpretation: the officer could have been dating the messages, but then abandoned them for the sepulchral mistress.
love, play & inquiry: wordstrochee on 20. Juni, 2007 22:20 (UTC)
I had yet another (marginally different) interpretation: that the (modern-day) officer had a secret message drop-off point for his illicit letters: he would bury them in some basement, where she would dig them up.

Headlines generally just beg for this kind of treatment, but this one q_pheevr is unusually rich.
Merle: lambdamerle_ on 21. Juni, 2007 00:04 (UTC)
I read (1) the same way, and would have substituted "that had" for "with" in order to decrease ambiguity.

I did parse (2) as "Officer left (messages for mistress) buried in basement". Perhaps because one assumes an officer would be an upholder of law and would not commit murder, or perhaps because if the mistress were buried in the basement there would be no reason to write to her. (although in this case there clearly was a reason)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 21. Juni, 2007 01:43 (UTC)
[I]f the mistress were buried in the basement there would be no reason to write to her (although in this case there clearly was a reason).

Well, under the prosecution's interpretation of events, the officer's reason for leaving messages for her would presumably have been to give others the impression that he didn't know she was dead. Under the officer's interpretation, it's not at all clear why he was phoning her—he claims that she died accidentally, and that he had put her in the basement pending an opportunity for a more dignified burial elsewhere.

tungol on 24. Juni, 2007 05:53 (UTC)
I think I have a third reading for sentence 1, though I'm not sure if the difference is syntactic.

The two readings you (seem to) refer to:
1. The landlord painted all the walls that had cracks on them.
2. The landlord painted all the walls using cracks as a painting tool.

My other reading (which I got at a glance, before reading 2, which it seems closely related to) was:
3. The landlord painted cracks onto the walls.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 24. Juni, 2007 21:59 (UTC)

I think reading 3 would have the same structure as reading 2, the difference being due to lexical ambiguity in the preposition with. Someone like Guglielmo Cinque might find reasons to put the PPs in those readings in different places, but at least at the level of the broad question of whether the PP is attached to the VP or the NP, readings 2 and 3 definitely fall into the former category, which is what distinguishes them from reading 1. There's yet another VP-attached reading, not very pragmatically plausible, in which with receives a comitative interpretation:

  1. The landlord and some cracks painted all the walls together.
(Anonym) on 25. Juni, 2007 02:33 (UTC)
Continuing in that vein, you could also suggest that the landlord was making cracking noises while he painted the wall. A little like:

1. I ate my ice cream with my spoon;
2. I ate my ice cream with my pie;
3. I ate my ice cream with my friend;
4. I ate my ice cream with gusto.