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Constructional homonymity

The theory of sentence-structure must do more than only describe the well-formed sentences of a natural language. There are many other facts about the sentences of a language that must be explained by a linguistic theory.

Some sentences are semantically parallel to other sentences of a different structure. Some sentences are related in a definite way to certain sentences. Some sentences are ambiguous and so on.

Grammar must provide an explicit basis for explaining the native speaker's understanding of the relationships between the sentences. It must also show the difference between overtly parallel sentences, the sentences which have the same structure at an appropriate level of abstraction.

Sentences must always be judged in their contexts.

Various important relations between sentences and types of constructions can be adequately explained by transformational analysis.

Ambiguity is an important feature of a natural language.

There are naturally different kinds of ambiguity. The sentence "The table was here" is ambiguous because table has several lexical meanings, e. g. "a table of contents", "mathematical table."

Similarly, the sentence "The train was long" is ambiguous because of the lexical meaning of the noun train: "that which runs on the railroad", and "that which is attached to a bridal gown". This kind of ambiguity is lexical, not grammatical.

The sentence Mary told her sister that she had acted foolishly is an example of grammatical ambiguity. The reference of the pronoun is not clear. We do not know whether she refers to Mary or her sister. Similarly, the sentence The boy looked fast. We don't know whether fast is an adjective (speedy) or an adverb (speedily). The phrase the men with the boys who were laughing is a grammatical ambiguity of a different sort; we can identify the word classes, but we do not know what goes with what — i. e., what the immediate constituents are.

Further examples are given below.

Consider the phrase (1) which can be understood ambiguously with the hunters as the subject, analogously to (2), or as the object, analogously to (3):

  1. the shooting of the hunters;

  2. the singing of birds;

  3. the raising of the cattle.

On the level of phrase structure there is no good to explain this ambiguity: all of these patterns are represented as the Ving + of-phrase.


In transformational terms, however, there is a clear and automatic explanation: the shooting of the hunters has two distinct transformational origins: the hunters shoot and they shoot the hunters, which are both kernel sentences. The ambiguity of the grammatical relation results from the fact that the relation of shoot to hunters differs in the two underlying sentences. Lexical improbability excludes the possibility of "they sing birds" or "cattle raise", which are not grammatical kernel sentences.

Covert (deep structure) relations do not manifest themselves in the surface structure. Compare the following:

  1. She made him a good wife.

  2. She made him a good husband.

The surface structures of the two sentences (a) and (b) are identical but their syntactic meanings differ essentially. Through transformation the covert syntactic relations are made explicit:

  1. She became a good wife to him.

  2. He became a good husband because she made him good.

The validity of the theory of surface and deep structure as applied to the explanation of syntactic homonymity in any language can hardly be doubted.

All languages have homonymy at several levels. Observations on syntactic structures of various types furnish numerous examples of homonymic patterns, i. e. such syntactic units as are identical in their grammatical arrangement but differ in meaning. Numerous situations may be pointed out in which structural ambiguities commonly occur. In such instances we may easily observe that ambiguity is resolved by some other element, linguistic or situational, or intonation.

A descriptive analysis of the structural signals of English will always be helpful to make clear the places where such ambiguities are likely to occur and the precise nature of the distinctive features involved. Students of English, must be aware of the common sources of structural ambiguity, as well as the precise devices for resolving them.

The following examples will furnish good illustration of the statement. The English verb is usually followed by a noun, with or without determiner. However, if both the noun determiner and the initial function word are missing, such structures may become ambiguous, like the following:

love blossoms in spring where ambiguity is avoided by intonational differences. Compare:

  1. Love blossoms in spring.

  2. Love blossoms in spring!

love is a noun in (1) and a verb in (2).

Ambiguity is quite possible at bast in written English and rapid speech; when, for instance, the two parts of a separable verb are not separated:

  1. She looked' over your papers.

  2. She 'looked over your 'papers.


If these two sentences are read aloud it will become apparent that in (1) the subject was inspecting the paper itself, while in (2) he is looking at something on the other side. Therefore only (1) can be replaced by he looked.

Illustrative examples of ambiguity will be found in patterns with the so-called "dangling participles". In patterns of this type the participle is, in fact, a sentence-modifier, though it may occupy the position at the beginning of the sentence which can also be occupied by a participial modifier or the subject. This gives a structure that is always structurally ambiguous. Lexical incongruity between the participle and the following subject resolves ambiguity. Ambiguous examples are often unintentionally comic or ridiculous.

Proceeding down the road a small village came in sight.

Many ambiguities are never noticed because the various possible meanings are narrowed down by context.

In they have busy lives without visiting relatives only context can indicate whether visiting relatives is equivalent in meaning to paying visits to relatives or to relatives who are visiting them, and in I looked up the number and I looked up the chimney only the meanings of number and chimney make it clear that up is syntactically a second complement in the first sentence and a preposition followed by its object in the second.

Structural ambiguity often occurs with prepositional phrases which are fairly common modifiers of various types of heads. This is often the case when the prepositional phrase appears medially or finally. However the characteristic intonation contour of the sentence-modifier, frequently supported by lexical indicators, serves to recognise prepositional phrases as such, e. g.:

His faith in her words was unshakable.

As written above, the sentence is surely ambiguous. The distinction between the two possible meanings would be preserved by setting off in her words with commas.

Ambiguity occurs more frequently in connection with constructions appearing in complement, predicate-modifier, or end-adverbial positions than with constructions appearing in front-adverbial subject, or verbal positions. This is primarily due to the fact that there are more positions in the last half of a sentence which may be filled by similar constructions than there are in the first half. The recipient of a message usually has little difficulty in recognising the boundary line between a subject and a following verb-cluster because of the change from "nominal material" to "verbal material". In the complement and the following sectors, however, there are no such clear-cut lines of demarcation between one kind of material and another: a phrase, for example, may occur as a post-nuclear modifier in a noun-cluster in Co position, or as an adjunctional in C2 position, or as a predicate-modifier in H position, or as an adverbial in any one of the three end positions.

Most, if not all, of the cases of structural ambiguity discussed by Ch. Fries in the Structure of English, as well as of those discussed by N. Chomsky in Syntactic Structures, can probably be explained in terms of


uncertainties about positions. Thus, to borrow an example from Ch. Fries, the sentence The new train appeared faster may be assigned to sectors in either of these two ways:

  1. The new train appeared faster.

  2. The new train appeared... faster.

In (1) faster is analysed as an adjunctal word occurring in C1 position; in (2) it is analysed as a predicate-modifier.

But the fact still remains that our ability to analyse the sentence in two different ways does not resolve the ambiguity. The sentence as it stands — without any larger context that might indicate which of the two analyses is the correct one — remains ambiguous.

If a sentence such as "flying planes can be dangerous" 1 is presented in an appropriately constructed context, the listener will interpret it immediately in a unique way, and will fail to detect the ambiguity. In fact, we may reject the second interpretation, when this is pointed out to him, as forced or unnatural (independently of which interpretation we originally selected under contextual pressure). Nevertheless the intuitive knowledge of the language is clearly such that both of the interpretations (corresponding to "flying planes are dangerous" and "flying planes is dangerous") are assigned to the sentence by the grammar internalised in some form. In the case just mentioned, the ambiguity may be fairly transparent. But in such a sentence, for instance, as He had a book stolen grammar provides at least three structural descriptions:

  1. He had a book stolen from his car when he left the window open, that is Someone stole a book from his car;

  2. He had a book stolen from the library by a professional thief whom he hired to do the job, that is He had someone steal a book;

  3. He almost had a book stolen, but they caught him leaving the library with it, that is He had almost succeeded in stealing a book.

Resolving this triple ambiguity in this way we arrange matters in such a way that the linguistic intuition, previously obscured, becomes evident.

To borrow an example from N. Chomsky, we shall consider the following sentences:

  1. / persuaded John to leave.

  2. / expected John to leave.

The first impression of the hearer may be that these sentences receive the same structural analysis. Even fairly careful thought may fail to show him that grammar assigns very different syntactic descriptions to these sentences. However, it is clear that the sentences (1) and (2) are not parallel in structure. The difference can be brought out by consideration of the sentences:

  1. / persuaded a specialist to examine John.

  2. / persuaded John to be examined by a specialist.

  3. / expected a specialist to examine John.

(6) I expected John to be examined by a specialist.

1 See: N. Chomsky. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965, pp. 21-24


The sentences (5) and (6) are cognitively synonymous: one is true if, and only if, the other is true.

But no variety of even weak paraphrase holds between (3) and (4). Thus (3) can be true or false quite independently of the truth or falsity of (4). Whatever difference of connotation or "topic" or emphasis one may find between (5) and (6) is just the difference that exists between the active sentence a specialist will examine John and its passive counterpart John will be examined by a specialist. This is not at all the case with respect to (3) however. In fact, the underlying deep structure for (1) and (4) must show that John is the direct object of the verb-phrase as well as the grammatical subject of the embedded sentence.

Not less characteristic are patterns with adverbs as sentence-modifiers which are rare in final position, and when they do occur there, ambiguity will be resolved by intonation.

Consider the following examples which will remind you that a change in intonation may change the structural meaning of adverbs:

The student is clearly speaking of his own impression.

He is apparently willing to join us.

The above examples will suffice to show that intonation may indicate rather important differences in structural meaning of the phrases.

Co-ordinators are not always used between members of structures of co-ordination and such sentences may frequently be structurally ambiguous, or at least potentially so. In speech, however, there are prosodic patterns which clearly distinguish the various types of construction. Consider the following sentence:

Let me introduce my friend a doctor and a scientist.

If we disregard prosody (and punctuation) this has at least three possible meanings.

An utterance does not necessarily become understandable even when all its vowels, consonants, and stress patterns have been recognised. It is still necessary to recognise where the boundaries fall. A typical pair of sentences is "He will act, roughly in the same manner", and He will act roughly, in the same manner. In presenting these two sentences in writing, roughly is assigned to what follows or what precedes by the position of the comma. In speech, the two are equally distinct and in no danger of confusion. The position of the boundary is signalled by elements in the sound system, which are imperfectly represented in writing by punctuation marks. These boundary signals are generally called junctures. 1

There is a close parallel to such developments in other languages.

Here are a few typical examples of structural ambiguity in noun-phrases with the possessive case in Russian and Ukrainian: фотография Петрова, for instance, has three possible contextual meanings:

  1. the photo belongs to Petrov;

  2. Petrov has taken the photo(graph) of smb.;

  3. Petrov is portrayed on the photo.

1 See: W. N. Francis. The Structure of American English. New York, 1958. 232

Structural homonymy of prepositional noun-phrases is also a common occurrence.

Он сделает это в два часа may mean either (1) at 2 o'clock or (2) in two hours 1.

Phrases with the preposition про may express object and adverbial relations, e. g. He про нас писано may mean:

  1. He о нас писано.

  2. He для нас писано. Ukrainian:

  1. Читайте тільки про себе (не вголос).

  2. Читайте тільки про себе (а не про когось іншого).

Кувшин с цветами may mean: (а) кувшин и цветы; (b) кувшин, на котором нарисованы цветы; (с) в кувшине находятся цветы.

Compare for illustration the German sentence Das ist natürlich genug which may be an instance of two different structures:

  1. that's natural enough;

  2. that's naturally enough.

Revision Material

  1. The syntactic structure of any language is a system constituted by organically related levels. Comment on the hierarchical intra-level relationship of syntactic units.

  2. Be ready to discuss different approaches to the study of syntax:

  1. traditional syntactic theory;

  2. structural syntactic theories;

  3. transformational syntax.

3. Comment on oppositional relationship of syntactic units.

4. Give comments on paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations in syntax.

  1. On what assumptions can syntactic paradigms be built?

  2. Be ready to discuss the statement that the division into parts of speech and the division into parts of the sentence are organically related.

  3. Comment on two main types of subject that are opposed to each other in terms of content.

  4. Comment on predication as a structure with the verb or verb- phrase at its core.

  5. Give comments on oppositional relations between the principal and secondary parts of the sentence.

  1. What do we mean by textlinguistics?

  2. Give comments on discourse analysis of supra-phrasal unities.

  1. Distinguish between "mentalistic" and "mechanistic" approaches to syntactic analysis.

  1. What do we mean by "deep grammar" analysis?

  1. Be ready to discuss grammatical ambiguity. Give a few examples of constructional homonymity. Make comparison with other languages.

  2. Illustrate the statement that many ambiguities are never noticed because the various possible meanings are narrowed down by context.

1 See: A. M. Пешковский. Русский синтаксис в научном освещении. М., 1956, р. 306.


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