David Madore's WebLog: I hate English syntax

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I hate English syntax

I hate English syntax because it's so persistently ambiguous.

Just minutes ago I was playing with the newly unveiled (and quite wonderful) Google Trends and I searched for Google itself. One of the news headlines that appeared in the list was:

Google shares sink

So I wondered, hmmm, what might be this kitchen sink that Google is sharing? Of course, a minute later, I realized that shares is not the verb but the subject and sink is not the object but the verb. Ah. This f*cking habit the English language has of simply juxtaposing words without indicating grammatical relationship (e.g., writing Google shares instead of Google's shares)—and it's particularly bad in newsspeak. I remember sometime back in 2000 I had come across a headline that read

U.S. appeals court asked to rule on Florida recount

—and I figured there were dozens of ways it could be parsed:

A U.S. court of appeal has been asked to rule concerning the recount in Florida.
The U.S. government appeals the court which had been asked to rule concerning the recount in Florida.
The American appeals, which the court has asked to rule over Florida, are recounting.
The American appeals, which the court has asked, are about to rule concerning the recount in Florida.

—and so on: any of the words appeals, asked, to rule and recount (and possibly even court) could be the main verb, and most of these possibilities give rise to at least two different parsings. I agree that most of them are meaningless, but still: it takes some effort to produce such an ambiguous sentence in French[#], whereas in English it sometimes seems that every zeusdamn sentence has a tendency to be parseable in many ways (even two-word ones like abuse pains!).

I can see why it would be most unwise for an international treaty to have English as only authoritative language! (There is the famous case of the 1967 UN resolution 242 which calls for withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict, meaning, of course, from the territories, a reading clearly supported by the French version, retrait des forces armées israéliennes des territoires occupés lors du récent conflit, but which some have wished to read as from some territories. Not really the same sort of ambiguity as mentioned above, but I'm sure better examples could be found.)

On the other hand, garden-path sentences make for terrific jokes. I found this one quite hilarious when I first heard it:

Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.

The best I have, in French, is la petite brise la glace, which can mean the small girl is breaking the window or the slight breeze is chilling her (similarly there is la bonne sauce la coupe, la grande alarme le modèle or le pilote ferme la porte, but none is very convincing). There is also the strange case of c'est après que c'est arrivé, which can mean two completely opposite things: it happened later or it was after it happened—but it's not really the same kind of ambiguity.

Addendum: later entry on a similar topic.

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