Fear of feet and relative ambiguity

September 3, 2014

In Lucy Ellmann’s sharp comic novel Varying Degrees of Hopelessness there is a minor but interesting ambiguity:

Later, she formed an alliance with a man much younger than herself, a man with small feet that didn’t scare her, a man who earned his living by entering supermarket competitions and the occasional raffle.

The question is, what didn’t scare her (she being the narrator’s mother) – the man or his small feet? I don’t think the book mentioned fear of feet elsewhere, so my first inclination was to assume that that in a man with small feet that didn’t scare her referred to the man.

But then why use a man who in the next clause? If the variation is meaningful, and not motivated by whimsy or euphony, etc., we could reasonably assume the fear refers to the feet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In a post on animals and pronouns, I summarised as follows: that can refer to things or people, which refers to things but not normally people, and who refers to people (and sometimes animals, or entities that are humanlike or have an implication of personality).

So a man with small feet which didn’t scare her would definitely imply that the feet didn’t scare her, while a man with small feet who didn’t scare her would connect the lack of fear decisively to the man. But that is ambiguous. How would you read it?

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Howling ambiguities

November 25, 2012

As a lazy Sunday offering, a selection of entries from Denys Parsons’ entertaining book It Must Be True: Classic Newspaper Howlers, Bloomers, and Misprints.

They’re not referenced in detail, unfortunately, but I’m willing to believe they’re all genuine instances of accidental ambiguity. Some can be found elsewhere online.

  1. After using your ointment my face started to clear up at once, and after using two jars it was gone altogether. (Ad in Bristol paper)
  2. Dyke stated in his complaint that the defendant owned a large dog that walked the floor most of the night, held noisy midnight parties, and played the radio so that sleep was impossible. (Australian paper)
  3. Wrap poison bottles in sandpaper and fasten with scotch tape or a rubber band. If there are children in the house, lock them in a small metal box. (Philadelphia Record)
  4. Its lone peal summons the faithful to worship while the others are dismantled and repaired. (Bucks Advertiser)
  5. Mrs. Oscar Maddox is able to be up after being confined to bed for several weeks with malaria fever, to the delight of her friends. (Thomasville (Georgia) Times-Enterprise)
  6. The Nilotic race is remarkable for the disproportionately long legs of its men and women. They extend on the eastern side of the Nile right down into the Ugandan Protectorate. (From a book by Sir Harry H. Johnston)
  7. …and a few moments after the Countess had broken the traditional bottle of champagne on the bows of the noble ship, she slid slowly and gracefully down the slipway, entering the water with scarcely a splash. (Essex paper)
  8. LOST Antique cameo ring, depicting Adam and Eve in Market Square Saturday night. (Ad in Essex paper)
  9. The thing that first caught my eye was a large silver cup that Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece. (short story)
  10. The native inhabitants produce all manner of curios, the great majority of which appear to command a ready sale among the visitors, crude and commonplace as they frequently are. (Bulawayo Chronicle)
  11. When the baby is done drinking it must be unscrewed and laid in a cool place under a tap. If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk it should be boiled. (Women’s magazine)
  12. Discovered at 5.06 a.m. the flames starting on the third floor of the Midwest Salvage Co., spread so rapidly that the first firemen on the scene were driven back to safety and leaped across three streets to ignite other buildings. (Cincinnati Times Star)
  13. Princess B__ wore a white and gold lace gown which she’d saved for the occasion. To give you an idea how elaborate it was, the centre-piece was a mirror 13½ feet long with elaborate matching candelabra of fruit-baskets. (Los Angeles Mirror)
  14. From Llandrindod you proceed along the lovely valley of the Ithon, growing more beautiful as you proceed. (Motor Cycle)

Many of these ambiguities are anaphoric. Anaphora is something everyone’s familiar with, though they mightn’t know the term. It’s the use of a word or phrase to substitute for an earlier element – the antecedent.

So in #1’s it was gone altogether, it is an anaphor referring back to an unidentified blemish, but technically it could also refer to my face, hence the ambiguity. Here, the absurdist interpretation comes more naturally.

In A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, David Crystal says anaphoric reference is a way of “marking the identity between what is being expressed and what has already been expressed”. See the lyrics of Christine Collins’s ‘Linguistics Love Song‘ for a play on it. Cataphora is similar but involves forward reference, e.g., Consider the following.

Grammatical jargon aside, which is your favourite ambiguity here, or do you remember other examples?