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Problem of meaning ambiguity in a language

Functional Re-evaluation of Grammatical Forms in Context.


The meaning of ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity

Structural ambiguity

Semantic ambiguity

Re-evaluation of Verb. Aspect meaning

Meaning of category of Voice

Category of Tense

8. The most controversial category –Mood

9. Synonymy in Grammar



“Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.”

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

What does ambiguity do? How is poetic indeterminacy constitutive of propositional content? Do rhetorical and poetic tropes organize communicative acts in order to make them more understandable? Or do they rather dis-organize them in order to make them more understandable? What, then, is “understanding”? Does “the call of the phoneme” (Culler 1988) clarify and crystallize semantic reference? Distract us from the clarity of semantic reference? Simply distract us? The potential attraction and distraction of ambiguity is ever-present in discourse.

Language is an organizer of the world into meaningful units and gives form to experience. However, this organizing role of language is, by a number of accounts, the root cause of both the possibility of meaning and the inevitability of ambiguity. Because languages are inevitably smaller than the worlds of experience they describe, words have get more than one meaning.

The problem of potential polysemy in grammar is one of the most important, the one which is very complex and seems to be relevant to a number of aspects. Observations in this area have proved the efficiency of contextual, distributional and transformational methods of linguistic analysis. We distinguish here the interdependence of word-forms within the syntactic structure, the interdependence of elements within the word-forms and the influence of other levels of the same language.

1. The meaning of ambiguity

A word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. The word 'light', for example, can mean not very heavy or not very dark. Words like 'light', 'note', 'bear' and 'over' are lexically ambiguous. They induce ambiguity in phrases or sentences in which they occur, such as 'light suit' and 'The duchess can't bear children'. However, phrases and sentences can be ambiguous even if none of their constituents is. The phrase 'porcelain egg container' is structurally ambiguous, as is the sentence 'The police shot the rioters with guns'. Ambiguity can have both a lexical and a structural basis, as with sentences like 'I left her behind for you' and 'He saw her duck'.

The notion of ambiguity has philosophical applications. For example, identifying an ambiguity can aid in solving a philosophical problem. Suppose one wonders how two people can have the same idea, say of a unicorn. This can seem puzzling until one distinguishes 'idea' in the sense of a particular psychological occurrence, a mental representation, from 'idea' in the sense of an abstract, shareable concept. On the other hand, gratuitous claims of ambiguity can make for overly simple solutions. Accordingly, the question arises of how genuine ambiguities can be distinguished from spurious ones. Part of the answer consists in identifying phenomena with which ambiguity may be confused, such as vagueness, unclarity, inexplicitness and indexicality.

Although people are sometimes said to be ambiguous in how they use language, ambiguity is, strictly speaking, a property of linguistic expressions. A word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous if it has more than one meaning. Obviously this definition does not say what meanings are or what it is for an expression to have one (or more than one). For a particular language, this information is provided by a grammar, which systematically pairs forms with meanings, ambiguous forms with more than one meaning

2. Lexical ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity is more common. Everyday examples include nouns like 'chip', 'pen' and 'suit', verbs like 'call', 'draw' and 'run', and adjectives like 'deep', 'dry' and 'hard'. There are various tests for ambiguity. One test is having two unrelated antonyms, as with 'hard', which has both 'soft' and 'easy' as opposites. Another is the conjunction reduction test. Consider the sentence, 'The tailor pressed one suit in his shop and one in the municipal court'. Evidence that the word 'suit' (not to mention 'press') is ambiguous is provided by the anomaly of the 'crossed interpretation' of the sentence, on which 'suit' is used to refer to an article of clothing and 'one' to a legal action.

The above examples of ambiguity are each a case of one word with more than one meaning. However, it is not always clear when we have only one word. The verb 'desert' and the noun 'dessert', which sound the same but are spelled differently, count as distinct words (they are homonyms). So do the noun 'bear' and the verb 'bear', even though they not only sound the same but are spelled the same? These examples may be clear cases of homonymy, but what about the noun 'respect' and the verb 'respect' or the preposition 'over' and the adjective 'over'? Are the members of these pairs homonyms or different forms of the same word? There is no general consensus on how to draw the line between cases of one ambiguous word and cases of two homonymous words. Perhaps the difference is ultimately arbitrary.

Sometimes one meaning of a word is derived from another. For example, the cognitive sense of 'see' seems derived from its visual sense. The sense of 'weigh' in 'He weighed the package' is derived from its sense in 'The package weighed two pounds'. Similarly, the transitive senses of 'burn', 'fly' and 'walk' are derived from their intransitive senses. Now it could be argued that in each of these cases the derived sense does not really qualify as a second meaning of the word but is actually the result of a lexical operation on the underived sense. This argument is plausible to the extent that the phenomenon is systematic and general, rather than peculiar to particular words. Lexical semantics has the task of identifying and characterizing such systematic phemena. It is also concerned to explain the rich and subtle semantic behavior of common and highly flexible words like the verbs 'do' and 'put' and the prepositions 'at', 'in' and 'to'. Each of these words has uses which are so numerous yet so closely related that they are often described as 'polysemous' rather than ambiguous.

3. Structural ambiguity

Structural ambiguity occurs when a phrase or sentence has more than one underlying structure, such as the phrases 'Tibetan history teacher', 'a student of high moral principles' and 'short men and women', and the sentences 'The girl hit the boy with a book' and 'Visiting relatives can be boring'. These ambiguities are said to be structural because each such phrase can be represented in two structurally different ways, e.g., '[Tibetan history] teacher' and 'Tibetan [history teacher]'. Indeed, the existence of such ambiguities provides strong evidence for a level of underlying syntactic structure. Consider the structurally ambiguous sentence, 'The chicken is ready to eat', which could be used to describe either a hungry chicken or a broiled chicken. It is arguable that the operative reading depends on whether or not the implicit subject of the infinitive clause 'to eat' is tied anaphorically to the subject ('the chicken') of the main clause.

It is not always clear when we have a case of structural ambiguity. Consider, for example, the elliptical sentence, 'Perot knows a richer man than Trump'. It has two meanings, that Perot knows a man who is richer than Trump and that Perot knows man who is richer than any man Trump knows, and is therefore ambiguous. But what about the sentence 'John loves his mother and so does Bill'? It can be used to say either that John loves John's mother and Bill loves Bill's mother or that John loves John's mother and Bill loves John's mother. But is it really ambiguous? One might argue that the clause 'so does Bill' is unambiguous and may be read unequivocally as saying in the context that Bill does the same thing that John does, and although there are two different possibilities for what counts as doing the same thing, these alternatives are not fixed semantically. Hence the ambiguity is merely apparent and better described as semantic underdetermination.

Although ambiguity is fundamentally a property of linguistic expressions, people are also said to be ambiguous on occasion in how they use language. This can occur if, even when their words are unambiguous, their words do not make what they mean uniquely determinable. Strictly speaking, however, ambiguity is a semantic phenomenon, involving linguistic meaning rather than speaker meaning; 'pragmatic ambiguity' is an oxymoron. Generally when one uses ambiguous words or sentences, one does not consciously entertain their unintended meanings, although there is psycholinguistic evidence that when one hears ambiguous context of utterance words one momentarily accesses and then rules out their irrelevant senses. When people use ambiguous language, generally its ambiguity is not intended. Occasionally, however, ambiguity is deliberate, as with an utterance of 'I'd like to see more of you' when intended to be taken in more than one way in the very same.

4. Semantic ambiguity

Sentences whose semantic contents seem to differ in different contexts, in virtue of containing expressions of such sorts as the following (there may be others):

• indexicals/demonstratives: [tense], I, today, now, here, we, you, she, they, then, there, that, those

• relational terms: neighbor, fan, enemy, local, foreign

• perspectival terms: left, distant, up, behind, foreground, horizon, faint, occluded, clear, obscure

• gradable adjectives, both relative and absolute: tall, old, fast, smart; flat, empty, pure, dry

• philosophically interesting terms: know, might, necessary, if, ought, free

• prepositions: in, on, to, at, for, with

• certain short verbs: put, get, go, take

• possessive phrases, adjectival phrases, noun-noun pairs: John’s car, John’s hometown, John’s boss, John’s company; fast car, fast driver, fast tires, fast time; child abuse, drug abuse; vitamin pill, pain pill, diet pill, sleeping pill

• implicit temporal, spatial, and quantifier domain restriction

• weather and other environmental reports: (It is) raining, humid, noon, summer, noisy, eerie

• ostensibly unary expressions (when used without complements) that denote binary relations: ready, late, finish, strong enough

• “predicates of personal taste”: fun, boring, tasty, cute, sexy, gross, cool

• miscellaneous: and, or, cut, (is) green

The problems with these content misunderstandings are as follow:

1.Contextualist platitude: Many sentences, even with all their constituents being used literally and even factoring out ambiguity, can be used to mean different things in different contexts. (This doesn’t entail that there’s anything context-sensitive in or about the sentence itself.)

2. Anti-compositionalism: Many (declarative) sentences semantically express propositions that are not completely determined by the semantic contents of their constituents and their syntactic structure.

3. Unarticulated Constituentism: Many sentences semantically express propositions some of whose constituents are not the semantic contents of any of the sentence’s constituents.

4. Anti-propositionalism: Many sentences do not semantically express propositions, even in contexts (because of lexical underspecificity, phrasal underdetermination, or propositional incompleteness).

5. Psychological Anti-semanticism: The compositionally determined semantic content of a sentence, whether or not fully propositional, plays no role in the psychological processes involved in communication (on either the speaker’s or the hearer’s side).

6. Outright Anti-semanticism: Many sentences do not have (compositionally determined) semantic contents at all.

7. Utterance “Contextualism”: The semantic content of almost any given sentence, whether or not it is fully propositional, falls short of the “intuitive content” of a likely utterance of the sentence because its semantic content is too sketchy, abstract, or otherwise nonspecific to be what the speaker means.

Three forms of semantic contents (each can be stronger or weaker as to range of application and role of context, and perhaps different versions apply to different classes of expressions):

1. Indexical Contextualism: The semantic contents of many sentences vary because they contain “non-obvious” indexical expressions whose contents are determined by context.

2. Variable Contextualism: The semantic contents of many sentences vary because they contain expressions that have variables associated with them whose values are determined by context.

3. Modulational Contextualism: The semantic contents of many sentences vary because they contain expressions whose senses (and/or phrases whose modes of composition) are “modulated” by context.

5. Re-evaluation of Verb. Aspect meaning

Functional re-evaluation of grammatical forms is a source of constant linguistic interest. We may say that whatever may be the other problems of grammar learning the polysemantic character of grammatical forms is always primary in importance.

Most grammatical forms are polysemantic. On this level of linguistic analysis distinction should be made between synchronic and potential polysemy.

The aspective meaning of the verb reflects the mode of the realization of the process. The opposition of the continuous forms of the verb to the non-continuous represents the aspective category of development. In symbolic notation it is represented by the formula be...ing. The primary denotative meaning of the Present Continuous is characterised by three semantic elements : a) present time, b) something progressive, c) contact with the moment of speech. The three meanings make up its synchronic polysemy.

By potential polysemy we mean the ability of a grammatical form to have different connotative meanings in various contexts of its uses. Examine for illustration the connotative (syntagmatic) meanings of the Present Continuous signalled by the context in the following sentences:

Brian said to his cousin: "I'm signing on as well in a way, only for life. I'm getting married." Both stopped walking. Bert took his arm and stared: "You're not."

"I am. To Pauline (Sillitoe) — future time reference. "It was a wedding in the country.

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