GRK 1808 TInCAP 5
Tübingen Interdisciplinary Corpus of Ambiguity Phenomena

Ambiguity of the Month

Ambiguity of the month was a project carried out by the researchers of the Research Training Group “Ambiguity: Production and Perception” during September 2019 - August 2022. The project was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – Project number 198647426.

August 2022
"Can you tell me how long cows should be milked?"
"They should be milked the same as short ones, of course."
(Shultz, T. R. (1976). A Cognitive Developmental Analysis of Humour. Humour and Laughter. Theory, research, and applications.. John Wiley & Sons.)
In linguistics, the category ,focus’ is employed to identify the part of a sentence that supplies the new or contrastive piece of information by which the meaning of that sentence is shaped. One way to make clear which part of a sentence is focused can be to stress that part prosodically. That option is evidently not available when you only see the sentence written down – which can lead to ambiguity, since some sentences can be interpreted differently depending on where the focus is.
That is also how the joke above works: If the focus is on ,milked’, the question is about the length of time you should take to milk a cow – which would probably also be the most intuitive interpretation of the question. The reply, however, suggests that the question is understood to be about the way you would milk a LONG COW– which would be the case if the focus was on ,long’. Now, if you are reading the joke instead of hearing it, there is really no sure way of telling where the focus is supposed to be, so a point could indeed be made in this case for thinking about milking a long cow instead of how long to milk a cow of whatever length – though the possibility of the ,long cow’-interpretation might be overlooked by most readers at first and so the reply should produce a surprising and comical effect, highlighting the ambiguity and creating a punchline by invoking the contrastive idea of the ,short cow’".
July 2022
Let’s Eat Grandma
Punctuation may change a linguistic structure so it can have different meanings, depending on, for example, whether it contains a comma in a certain place or not. In the case of the example above, a comma between ,Eat’ and ,Grandma’ makes the sentence a simple and (probably, depending on what is on the menu) quite harmless request from someone to their grandmother to join them for a meal. Removing that comma changes the interpretation: While someone is suggesting a meal to someone else in this case, too, the meal would then consist of the grandmother in question. This is why, with reference to this example, it has been said that punctuation can save lives.
While disambiguating whether you are inviting your grandmother for a meal or asking someone else to commit parricidal cannibalism with you does seem like a very good idea indeed, you would only have the option to do that with a simple comma if you were making the suggestion in writing, which is obviously true for any ambiguity that arises due to punctuation. If you are making your suggestion (whichever one it is…) orally, you can try to disambiguate by other means – for instance, leaving a pause where the comma would be in writing. Or not. If your grandmother hears that sentence from you WITHOUT that pause, she may want to think about running…
June 2022
La poubelle est pleine. [The bin is full.]
(Fuchs, C. (1996). Les ambiguïtés du français. Ophrys.)
While clarity of expression can certainly be very useful for communication purposes, everyday conversations sometimes appear to pose different requirements. Simply (and clearly) telling your addressee what the matter is might at times be inappropriate or put you in a bad light. To go with the example above, telling someone to empty a bin that you could probably very well empty yourself carries the risk of appearing lazy… and that’s for starters.
Indirectness might be the way out: Just mention the full bin and hope that the other person will recognize the hint. Strictly speaking, merely pointing out the fullness of the bin is not a suggestion for ANYONE in particular to do something about it, so, strictly speaking, you can hardly be held responsible if mentioning that interesting little fact gets someone else thinking – only to arrive at the conclusion that they should (if not want to) do something about the bin being full.
If indirectness doesn’t always work, that’s mainly because it comes with a built-in ambiguity between what is being said and what is supposed to be understood. The person who is supposed to start thinking about emptying the bin might not react in that way – or at all. That could be because they really don’t get the hint, missing the ambiguity altogether – or because they do get it, but choose to ignore it, causing the indirectness to backfire by exploiting the communicative wiggle room always left by ambiguity.
May 2022
Why does the king always draw straight lines? Because he is the ruler.
In his article ‘A linguistic account of wordplay: The lexical grammar of punning’ from 2009, Alan Scott Partington defines wordplay as the use of a phrase that deliberately utilizes the similarity of the way that phrase sounds to the sound of another phrase with a different meaning. So, to create wordplays, one can work with all kinds of ambiguity phenomena – figurative language in all its forms, for example, or homonymy, or syntactic ambiguity (Partington argues that the whole thing should be called ‘phraseplay’ anyway, since there is usually more than one word involved).
People play with words for several reasons, but very often simply because it is fun, and so there are, among other things, many jokes that rely on wordplay. The word ‘ruler’ can mean both ‘person that rules over a certain area (e.g. a king)’ and ‘device designed to help the user to draw straight lines’. The joke quoted above achieves its surprising and comical effect by making the addressee think about a PERSON that rules when asking about something semantically connected to the measurement device also called ,ruler’ – forcing two things into one sentence that don’t usually belong together on the level of meaning and that only intersect on the level of spelling (which, particularly if the joke is being told instead of read, would probably not be enough to make the addressee think of the connection before the punchline is being delivered).
April 2022
'Whips!' cried Veruca Salt. 'What on earth do you use whips for?' 'For whipping cream, of course,' said Mr Wonka. 'How can you whip cream without whips? Whipped cream isn't whipped cream at all unless it's been whipped with whips. Just as a poached egg isn't a poached egg unless it's been stolen from the woods in the dead of night! Row on, please!'
(Dahl, R. (1964). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Ch. 18.)
Two words that you could believe to be the same, but that nonetheless have different meanings and therefore can create ambiguity when used, are polysemes, if their meanings are somehow related, and homonyms, if they are not. The reasons for homonymy can be the words in question looking the same written down – which would make them homographs – or their identical pronunciation – which would be a case of homophony. While both homophony and homography can constitute homonymy on their own, a homonym can also be a homophone as well as a homograph, which is the case with "poached". You can rightfully claim to be poaching something if you’re cooking it in a certain way (with the shell off, if it IS an egg) or if you’re stealing it. Both of those actions you can perform with eggs, so thanks to the wonders of lexical ambiguity and contrary to what is claimed in the example (which is, of course, a case of comical exploitation of said ambiguity), you can, in fact, poach an egg without having to steal it.
March 2022
Disambiguation by context
Somehow I managed to get back to my feet. I was glad they were still at the end of my legs.
(Horowitz, A. (1991). South by Southeast. The Book People.)
Using ambiguous expressions comes with the risk of misunderstanding. Luckily, context often provides sufficient cues for the ambiguous expressions to be disambiguated.
,Getting back to one’s feet’ can be about standing up, if one is speaking figuratively, or – if the phrase is used literally – about moving back to where one's feet are and actually having to cover some distance for it. There certainly ARE scenarios in which the second meaning could be appropriate – though most of them would be, while imaginable, gruesome enough that you might really, really want to NOT imagine them. But most of all, they’re quite specific, and so it’s little wonder that the literal meaning is intended much more rarely than the figurative one when the phrase is used.
Any context that involves the feet in question still being attached to the corresponding legs disables the literal meaning of the phrase right away, so by providing that very context, the example resolves the ambiguity immediately – and probably gets a laugh out of it as well by calling to mind the literal meaning (that the reader might not even have thought about at first) for comical effect.
February 2022
Retrospective ambiguity
“It doesn’t matter how,” he said and I realized that it did matter a lot. “All that matters is that he doesn’t kill Kusenov on British soil.”
“Suppose he stays on the pavement?” Tim asked.
Mr Waverly swallowed hard. “I mean, we have to ensure that Kusenov is not killed while he is anywhere in Britain,” he explained, choosing his words carefully.
(Horowitz, Anthony (1991). South by Southeast. St. Helens: The Book People. Ch. 4.)
Sometimes, you don’t recognize an utterance as ambiguous when it is used. Idioms, for example, are something native speakers are used to, and so said native speakers will in most cases jump to the figurative meaning and not even think about the literal one when hearing an idiom, and then the ambiguity the idiom could trigger will instead fly under the radar, so to speak. But in some of these cases, something said after the ambiguous phrase will point to the overlooked meaning, triggering the ambiguity belatedly – retrospectively, as it were.
,On British soil’ is usually understood to mean ,in Britain’, which, of course, also means ,every patch of land within the British borders’. Not just soil, then (which makes the idiom also a case of metonymy). So, something you’re not supposed to do ,on British soil’ would usually be understood to be something you would have to do outside Britain – and that is the meaning Mr. Waverly is going for, too. When Tim responds to that by suggesting that the action in question (a killing, of all things!) could take place on the pavement (a BRITISH pavement) instead of – unpaved – British soil, he obviously misses the point, but does so in reaction to the ambiguity that Mr. Waverly – as well as probably the reader of the novel – initially ignored.
January 2022
CUSTOMER: When is the Windsor train?

OFFICIAL: To Windsor?


(Bauer, Matthias; Knape, Joachim; Koch, Peter; Winkler, Susanne. (2010). Dimensionen der Ambiguität. 7-75. 18. 40. 1)
It is both impossible and unnecessary to be fully explicit about all the details of a situation when describing it verbally. The lack of precision does not have to be a problem: Most of the time, people can guess the correct specifications to the words actually said in order to get to the meaning those words are supposed to convey. Often you do not even need all the details for a conversation to work – a sketch instead of the whole picture might do; and most of the time, all this happens so easily that you would not even consciously notice you are doing it during the conversation. But sometimes, there is more than one obvious way to specify what a certain word or phrase is supposed to mean, and that’s when underspecification leads to ambiguity.
Combining the word ,train’ with the name of a place obviously makes sense because moving from one place to another is what trains do, and mentioning a place together with a train can easily be recognized as the information as to where that train’s movement takes place. Only there is the matter of direction: A Windsor train could be either coming from Windsor or going there, and since there can be reasons for both interpretations when you’re inquiring about that particular train (you may want to go to Windsor yourself or maybe pick someone coming from Windsor up at the train station), a specification like the one in the example might be needed.
December 2021
to light a Christmas tree
A metonymy is a kind of figurative language that exploits actual links or close associations between two things by replacing the word for one thing with the word for the other: You might use the word for something containing something else when intending to talk about the content rather than the container. Or you might talk about something as a whole while meaning only a part of it, as in the case of the example: The concept of a Christmas tree calls for a combination of some kind of conifer and decorations – those decorations often including candles. Now, while you COULD set fire to this construct in its entirety, it’s not hard to imagine how – especially with most Christmas trees being set up indoors – that would be not at all advisable. So most people stick to lighting only the candles on the tree and might, in fact, be so used to calling that ,lighting the Christmas tree’ that the ambiguity coming with the option to burn the whole thing down would not even register anymore when the words are used.
November 2021
„The Bare Necessities“
(Wolfgang Reitherman: The Jungle Book. 1967. Walt Disney Productions.)
Homophones are words that are pronounced the same way, but do not have the same meaning and are often spelled differently as well. ,Bear’ and ,bare’ are such a pair of words: ,Bare’ is an adjective that can mean something like ,empty’, ,naked’ or, in the case of this example, ,basic’, while a ,bear’ is a furry animal.
The quote is the title of a song in the movie ,The Jungle Book’. Since the difference is not discernible from pronunciation, you would not know which kind of necessities – the basic ones or those of a bear – are referred to just by listening to the song. Moreover, in the context of the movie a point could be made for both interpretations – which creates a comic effect that is fueled by the ambiguity remaining unresolved throughout the song (unless you’re watching the movie with subtitles): While the lyrics are about how all the singer needs – their BARE necessities – can be easily found in the Jungle, the singer in question is also a bear, making their necessities into BEAR necessities as well.
October 2021
Figurative language
Why does an elevator make ghosts happy?
Because it lifts the spirits.
When people use literal language, the words spoken are supposed to convey the meaning assigned to them by convention. And then there is figurative language that gives the words a different meaning than the one generally accepted as their literal meaning. Figurative language comes in many forms – e.g., metaphors, similes or idioms – and creates ambiguity whenever it is not entirely clear if someone is going for the literal or the figurative meaning of a word or phrase.
Figurative language depends very much on exact wording; words used figuratively cannot simply be replaced by their synonyms without the figurative meaning getting lost in the process. So, when confronted with a question about ghosts – which is another word for ‘spirits’ – being happy about elevators, you probably would not make the connection right away that ‘to lift somebody’s spirits’ means ‘to make somebody happy’ figuratively – and that elevators are devices that do indeed lift things. So, the joke basically turns the idea of figurative language on its head and starts off with the literal meaning of a phrase more associated with its figurative meaning – before triggering that figurative meaning with the actual phrase in the punchline.
September 2021
Syntactic ambiguity
The murderer killed the student with the book.
Syntactic ambiguity is a structural ambiguity that affects a sentence. It arises when there is more than one way to interpret how the words that make up a specific sentence relate to each other, giving that sentence more than one possible structure.
In the example, the phrase ,with the book’ can be interpreted as a specification for either ,killed’ or ,the student’. So this part of the sentence can either tell you which student was killed – or which method of killing was employed in the deed. So the meaning of the sentence is either that a student CARRYING a book was killed by the murderer – or that the murderer used a book to commit the crime.
August 2021
Referential ambiguity
Queen: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.
(Shakespeare, William (1982). Hamlet. Edited by Harold Jenkins. London: Thomson. 3.4.8-9.)
Words are used to refer to what is in the world. But sometimes, there is more than one option what a word could refer to when used. Often that is because there is, in the given world, more than one of whatever the word refers to – for example, if one of three female siblings says something about her ,sister’. Likewise, when Hamlet and his mother talk about Hamlet’s ,father’ in the example, they don’t mean the same person: Hamlet refers to Hamlet Sr., his biological father – and his mother’s first husband –, while the queen is talking about her second husband Claudius. Of course, for that second one to work, you would have to accept ,married to your mother’ being applicable as the only condition for someone to qualify as your ,father’ (which Hamlet obviously has no intention of doing).
Since there IS a word specifically for a man who is married to your parent, but is NOT your biological father, the ambiguity could have been easily prevented if the queen had talked about Hamlet’s ,stepfather’. Her presumably trying to emphasize the familial bond between Hamlet and Claudius by using ,father’ instead backfires when her son – clearly understanding who she is talking about well enough – very strategically perceives the referential ambiguity in her choice of words and utilizes that ambiguity to accuse her of betraying her first husband by her union with the second.
July 2021
Pragmatic ambiguity
It’s cold in here.
(Winter-Froemel, Esme and Angelika Zirker (2015). “Ambiguity in Speaker-Hearer-Interaction: A Parameter-Based Model of Analysis”. In: Ambiguity. Ed. by Susanne Winkler. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 283–339. 308.)
Sometimes the ambiguity of an utterance is not triggered by any specific part of the utterance itself, but by the situation it is uttered in.
,It is cold in here’ in itself is a sentence that states very clearly that in a certain place the temperature is low. What is ambiguous about that sentence, therefore, is not its semantics, but rather the intention of the speaker. Winter-Froemel and Zirker (2015) show that the ambiguity of this utterance stems from the fact that it could be characterized either as a representative or a directive speech act. One might say ,It is cold in here’ for no other purpose than sharing the piece of information contained in that sentence with someone else – for example, if someone was doing an experiment that requires a low temperature in the laboratory, they might want to make clear that this condition is satisfied. But one might also say ,It is cold in here’ with the intention of complaining about the stated fact and, more importantly, with the intention of asking the listener to do something about it. Thus, the meaning of the utterance can range from ,I want you to know that it is cold in here since you might find that interesting’ (assertive) to ,Close that window and turn up the heat’ (request), making the utterance pragmatically ambiguous.
June 2021
Praktikant: Ich werd ungern erkannt.
Claus von Wagner: Ja, das ist die richtige Einstellung für's Fernsehen.
[Intern: I don’t like being recognized.
Claus von Wagner: Yes, that is the right attitude for television.]
(Max Uthoff / Claus von Wagner: Die Anstalt, 04. Februar 2014.)
When you say something while intending the words to convey the exact opposite of their literal meaning, that’s irony. Obviously, there is an ambiguity between the intended and the literal meaning in every ironic utterance, and, just as obviously, the potential for misunderstandings is particularly big here: Not only is the intended meaning as far from the literal meaning as possible; there is nothing on the mere word level to mark the utterance as ironic. Context, tone of voice, facial expression and other non-verbal means of communication (like gestures, e.g. the famous ,air quotes’) might help with that. It can still be a gamble; but it can also be used quite well for comical effect.
In the case of the example above, context should help to identify the irony. To dislike being recognized clearly isn’t helpful when working on a medium that is very much about being seen and henceforth being recognized. So when the guy interning – and thereby appearing – on the TV show ,Die Anstalt’ claims that he doesn’t like being recognized, Claus von Wagner’s response that this is just the right attitude for television has to be ironic.
May 2021
Dramatic irony
Claudius [to Gertrude]: I hope to hear good news [concerning Hamlet]
from thence [England] ere long
If everything falls out to our content.
(Shakespeare, William (2006). Hamlet. Ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. Vol. 249. The Arden Shakespeare. London.)
Literary characters – as real-life people – cannot know everything. It might so happen that a character is unaware of a critical event within the story. However, with literature – unlike in real life – there actually is always someone who does know everything going on there, and that’s the real-life person dealing with it, e.g. the reader. When this person sees a deeper meaning in a character’s utterance while the literary characters involved are unaware of that meaning, we witness the effect of dramatic irony.
When, in the example from ,Hamlet’, Claudius talks about the ,good news’ he hopes for, Gertrude might think that those would be the news of Hamlet arriving safely in England. Someone who watches the play, though, will know that Claudius has, in fact, arranged for Hamlet to be killed once he arrives in England and that the good news he is actually hoping for would be those of Hamlet’s demise.
In this example, it has to be assumed that at least Claudius himself is aware of the difference between what he means and what is understood by Gertrude – which means that the utterance is already ambiguous (and quite strategically so) within the play. The special brand of ambiguity that comes with dramatic irony arises on a different level when the spectator draws on the full knowledge of Claudius’ true motives established earlier in the play – a knowledge Gertrude does not have – and recognizes the layer of meaning the king’s nefarious plans add to the dialogue by introducing Claudius’ very particular idea of good news about Hamlet into the equation.
April 2021
Genre ambiguity
“Der zerbrochene Krug” by Heinrich von Kleist
(Heinrich von Kleist (1957). Der zerbrochene Krug: Lustspiel in einem Aufzug. Stuttgart : Reclam.)
Literature can be categorized by genre. A particular set of characteristics shared by a large body of texts can define those texts as belonging to the same genre, distinguishing them from texts belonging to OTHER genres. There is, for example, the distinction between tragedy and comedy for a play, and while on the whole it certainly is a complex matter, spotting all the funny parts usually helps recognizing the comedies while tragic things happening would indicate a tragedy.
Then again, most plays consist of many parts, as do the lists of what makes up a comedy or a tragedy. Consequently, it is little wonder that there are plays that have parts indicating a tragedy in them while also containing parts that will steer the effect into the direction of a comedy. There can be a play about something tragic happening that still makes you laugh at times. There can be a play with a funny plot that involves people having tragic choices forced upon them. ,Der zebrochene Krug’ by Heinrich von Kleist goes by the label of ,Lustspiel’, which is German for a type of comedy. The plot involves a judge having to publicly look into a crime – breaking the jug referred to in the title – he has committed himself, all the while trying to cover up not only that, but the REALLY nasty thing he did leading up to it. That certainly does provide many opportunities for humor, but there is also something very sinister to the entire matter. Scholars – Friedrich Braig, for example – have noticed early on that there are, for instance, similarities with the mother of all tragedies – ,Oedipus Rex’ by Sophokles – and that the option of Kleist’s protagonist committing suicide as well is alluded to in his play. The fact that it does not come to that, assuring a mostly happy ending, may be the main reason why the play still goes by the label of comedy, but the ambiguity between that and the play’s interpretation as tragic can still very much be argued for.
March 2021
Conversational implicature
Are you going to his party? – I have to work.
(cited from: Winter-Froemel, Esme and Angelika Zirker (2015). “Ambiguity in Speaker-Hearer-Interaction: A Parameter-Based Model of Analysis”. In: Ambiguity. Ed. by Susanne Winkler. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 283–339, 288.)
Say only as much as you have to, only what you believe to be true and only what is relevant for the conversation at hand, and make all that as easy to understand as possible. Also, assume that everyone else involved in the conversation is doing the same. – That is, in short, what H.P. Grice recommends for a successful conversation. But there can be times during a conversation when someone says something that blatantly goes against one or more of those rules. Still assuming that this person has the intention to make the conversation work, one would have to guess that there is more to the utterance in question than just the meaning of the words actually spoken and keep looking for some additional meaning. What is thus communicated without really being said is what would linguistically be called a conversational implicature. Of course, there is theoretically still the possibility of the speaker simply being bent on sabotaging the conversation (for whatever reasons), which technically leaves the utterance ambiguous between something that can work for the conversation if you look for its full intended meaning hard enough – and something that simply is not supposed to fit in there.
When asked if you’re going to a certain party, the easiest, most obvious and also shortest options for an answer are ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so answering that question with anything BUT either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ already violates the ‘say only as much as you have to’/’quantity’-rule; therefor it’s fair to assume that there is more going on in the example than just person X answering the question. Then there’s relevance; if the answer is relevant to the conversation, X having to work must be related to their willingness or ability to go to the party. The most logical relation would probably be that having to work will prevent X from attending the party. Not only does that extra meaning make X’s answer indeed relevant for the conversation; it would also explain the violation against the ‘quantity’-rule as X trying to not only answer the question, but explain the reason for having to answer – or rather, to conversationally implicate – ‘no’.
February 2021
Resolved ambiguity
For example, Köhler (1925) studied an ape called Sultan. He (the ape rather than Köhler!) was kept inside a cage, and could only reach a banana outside the cage by joining two sticks together.
(quoted from Eysenck, Michael William (2006). Fundamentals of Cognition. Hove, New York: Psychology Press. p. 361.)
For many types of ambiguity, two readings of an ambiguous sentence or word only coexist for a very, very short time. Once that time is over and there is only one possible meaning left, the ambiguity can be considered resolved.
Most ambiguities will get resolved sooner or later, and the only point of contention might be how MUCH sooner that will have to happen to make the ,resolved’ part worth mentioning. Examples like the one presented here bear no risk of being misunderstood, since they have a very explicit disambiguation hitting home almost at the same time as the ambiguity itself. This effect is often used for a comic effect (Heinz Erhardt, for instance, did it all the time), the whole point being that before getting any chance to notice the ambiguity in the first place, the listener hears the disambiguating phrase that calls to mind what may very well be an alternative interpretation of the following too absurd for the unaided to think about anyway… and therefor all the more funny. If someone mentions a man named Köhler and an ape and then proceeds to mention that one of them was held in a cage and had only so many options to get a banana, most people will probably figure out on their own that the individual in question would probably be the ape rather than the man – will figure it out so quickly, in fact, that the quite amusing picture of a man named Köhler sitting in a cage and scrabbling for a banana using two sticks might not even come up if not for the part of the text helpfully pointing to the ambiguity – by resolving it.
January 2021
Apo koinou
Indeed, I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo till I behold him, dead,
Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vexed.
(quoted from Shakespeare, William (2005). “Romeo and Juliet.” In: Stanley Wells; Gary Taylor; John Jowett; William Montgomery (ed). The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 369-400. 390.)
When one part of a sentence can be interpreted in two ways due to how it may be linked to two different other parts of the sentence (which are most often the parts directly before and after the one in question)… well, that’s apo koinou for you.
In the example, the part in question is the word ,dead’. So what, according to Shakespeare’s Juliet, is (or should be) dead? It could be either Romeo or Juliet’s heart. Notably, it’s not before picking one of those options that one can determine what the rest of the example is supposed to mean. Juliet could either be saying that she will not be satisfied until she beholds Romeo and that her heart is dead because of the death of her vexed cousin Tybalt – or that she will not be satisfied until she sees Romeo dead. The latter interpretation would also suggest something along the lines of her heart being vexed because of Tybalt’s death, though, admittedly, the syntax would be a bit garbled there. Considering the context of Shakespeare’s play, there is a sense of strategy to Juliet’s ambiguous phrasing: While she loves Romeo and is secretly married to him, her family sees him as an enemy, and he did kill Tybalt. Now, instead of outright lying about her feelings, she uses the apo koinou construction to utter what can be an expression of either her true longing to see Romeo or the wish for his death she needs her family to believe she has, while both of those meanings are combined with an expression of her real grief over her cousin’s demise.
December 2020
CALVIN: Want to buy my latest invention?
HOBBES: What is it?

CALVIN: I must be years ahead of my time.
(quoted from Writer's Block (03.03.1995). Retrieved from (on 18.03.2017).)
Using word A in place of another word B creates a metaphor if the thing referred to by A shares some kind of similarity with the thing described by B.
The term ,writer’s block’ is usually understood as a reference to someone’s inability to write due to a lack of inspiration and creativity. The metaphor uses the idea of a physical obstacle preventing forward motion, thus translating the mental process of coming up with things to then write down into physical movement. After all, a normal case of writer’s block would have mental rather than physical reasons for the writer’s inability to write.
But of course, there is always the option to take a metaphor literally, leaving the use of any metaphor potentially ambiguous. In light of that, it is already suspicious that, in the example, Calvin offers Hobbes to BUY his writer’s block. It certainly would be hard to sell someone their own mental inability to form thoughts to put into writing. So instead, what Calvin offers is quite literally something that prevents the lucky owner from accomplishing the physical act of writing… by blocking the place where they would otherwise perform that task. The difference between the literal and the metaphorical meaning of the term also explains why Calvin – probably eager to get out of doing his homework – would think his writer’s block to be something desirable enough to also be sellable, while people suffering from the metaphorical kind of writer’s block – the writers who gave the phenomenon the first part of its name – are usually eager to get rid of it.
November 2020
Garden path
While Anna dressed the baby spit up on the bed.
(quoted from Ferreira, Fernanda; Christianson, Kiel; Hollingworth, Andrew (2001). Misinterpretations of Garden-Path Sentences:Implications for Models of Sentence Processingand Reanalysis. In: Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 30/1.3-20. 3.)
It’s human nature to choose the path of least resistance – even though that path might turn out to lead nowhere. In that case one would have to go back and try another path.
With that scenario in mind, and comparing the process of walking a path to get somewhere to the process of listening to or reading a sentence in order to understand its meaning, linguists call a certain type of sentence ‘garden path’: That would be a sentence that invokes one interpretation first before coming to an end that makes that interpretation impossible to maintain, forcing the addressee to go back on it and choose another one.
So, in the end, the garden path sentence in its full length only has one valid meaning. But for a short period of time, the first part of the sentence does provide two different meanings. Thus, the sentence is temporarily ambiguous before its second part determines which one of the two possible meanings is actually valid. For example: The words ,While Anna dressed the baby’ could come down to a sentence telling about something that happened while Anna dressed – or to a sentence informing about something that happened while Anna dressed the baby. The second option is blocked when the end of the sentence makes ‘the baby’ unavailable as an object, determining that the baby spitting up on the bed is what happens while Anna is getting dressed herself.
October 2020
Mr. Gum’s bedroom was absolutely grimsters. The wardrobe contained so much mould and old cheese that there was hardly any room for his moth-eaten clothes, and the bed was never made. (I don’t mean that the duvet was never put back on the bed, I mean the bed had never even been MADE. Mr. Gum hadn’t gone to the bother of assembling it. He had just chucked all the bits of wood on the floor and dumped a mattress on top.)
(quoted from Stanton, Andy (2006). You're a Bad Man, Mr. Gum!. London: Egmont UK Ltd. Ch. 1.)
If two or more words – that do not necessarily belong together due to their meaning – occur in combination more often than chance warrants, that’s what linguistics would call a collocation. For example, there are many things you can make – shoes, a fire, a case, mistakes. So by chance, the word referring to any of those things should be combined with the verb ,make’ as often or as rarely as any other – that is, if the verb ,make’ is supposed to mean ,bring into existence’ or something along those lines. In that sense, you can also make a bed (provided you don’t have two left hands, that is). However, ,to make a bed’ does not always refer to someone doing woodwork; it can also mean (in the words used in the example) ,to put the duvet back on the bed’.
Naturally, that adds the times someone uses ,to make a bed’ for its one meaning to all the times someone uses the words aiming for the other meaning, thus increasing the frequency of those words occurring together. And then there is the concept of every normal person needing a whole new bed (and so being in need to make one in that sense) only every few years at the most, but probably making that very bed (in the other sense) every single morning. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that one would talk about making their bed every day. Still, the chance that it might come up in speech or writing rises considerably when it’s about a daily occurrence rather than something that happens only every few years or so.
There is, of course, also the possibility of using the phrase for comical effect – aiming for one meaning while expecting the addressee to think of the other first, as is done in the example: Not making his bed the way you would every morning can certainly qualify as a manifestation of Mr. Gum’s messiness, so the reader of the book ,You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum’ will accept that interpretation readily enough; but then the narrator goes on to explain that Mr. Gum had not even ever constructed the bed so it could be made in that other way, further mapping out the true extent of the protagonist’s lack of tidiness.
September 2020
I used to be addicted to soap, but I'm clean now.
Polysemy is a phenomenon that occurs when a word has two different meanings. What distinguishes polysemy from homonymy is that the different meanings of a homonym are not related – e.g. etymologically – while those of a polyseme are.
So, additionally to meaning ,not dirty’, the word ,clean’ can also mean ,not addicted’. If you take the addiction as a kind of metaphorical dirt on the person in question, referring to the ex-addict as ,clean’ extends that metaphor to the condition of being not dirtied by the addiction anymore.
Now, the funny part of the example is that in this joke, both meanings of ,clean’ are evoked: While ,used to be addicted’ triggers the ,not addicted anymore’-meaning, ,soap’ as the (rather unusual) object of the addiction triggers the ,not dirty’-meaning in its literal sense. Hence, the second part of the sentence can be interpreted in two ways: Either the addiction and therefore the urge to use soap has been overcome, or the need to use soap does no longer exist because there is no more dirt to be washed off. Of course, if the second version is aimed at, that interpretation would also reveal the first part of the sentence to be rather figurative, since a real addict would not care if the practical need for the substance they crave was still there or not, so a true and upstanding soap-addict might even try to wash skin that was perfectly clean (in the literal sense) already.
August 2020
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.

(“What does ‘under the name’ mean?” asked Christopher Robin. “It means he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it.” […])
(quoted from Alan Alexander Milne (1926). Winnie-the-Pooh. London: Methuen. Ch 1.)
An idiom is a linguistic unit that can convey a figurative meaning additionally to the literal one and is therefore (theoretically) ambiguous. However, once the figurative meaning gains general acceptance, the idiom tends to trigger the figurative rather than the literal meaning in communication, so someone using an idiom does not usually need to worry about being misunderstood. Calling the ambiguity of an idiom to mind in the first place can create unexpected and often comical effects by making an addressee go back on the assumption that there is only the figurative meaning to be considered.
For example: Understood figuratively, the phrase ,to live under the name of x’ means ,to be known to the world by the name of x’. That is probably what the reader of the children’s book ,Winnie-the-Pooh’ will take from the example at first – that (by last Friday) Winnie-the-Pooh was known to people as ,Sanders’. Even when little Christopher Robin (the narrator’s audience within the novel) asks about the meaning of the phrase, the reader will probably just assume that the boy is too young to know about the figurative meaning. Thus it will come all the more as a surprise when the phrase is explained to be meant literally: Winnie-the-Pooh ,lived’ – verbatim ,resided’ – ,under’ – verbatim ,below (spatially)’– ,the name’ – verbatim ,a representation of the name in writing’.
July 2020
Rethorical Question
“What have the romans ever done for us?”
(Terry Jones (1979): Monty Python's Life of Brian. Written by Monty Python.)
A question is considered rhetorical if its answer is so obvious (at least in a certain context) that nobody would expect anyone to spell the answer out. Grammatically, though, the rhetorical question still takes the form of a question and might thus still be misunderstood by the addressee as something demanding an actual answer; that is why the rhetorical question can be perceived as ambiguous. In the movie ,Life of Brian’, the question ,What have [the Romans]ever given us […]?’ is uttered at the meeting of an organization fighting against the oppression of Judea by the Romans. That context clearly identifies the question as rhetorical – with ,nothing’ as the answer that is supposed to be obvious. However, instead of making clear how it is self-evident that no good has come from the Roman occupation, the use of that stylistic device backfires when the attending freedom fighters mistake the rhetorical question for a genuine one and, in their endeavour to find an answer, come up with quite a lot (“The aqueduct?” – “And the sanitation!” – “And the roads.” – “Irrigation.” – “Medicine.” – “Education.” – “And the wine!”...). The comical effect of the rhetorical question triggering a response defeating its very purpose reaches a peak when the spokesman tries to regain control over the situation by repeating a slight variation of the original question – preceded by the newly assembled list of benefits the presence of Roman forces has for Judea: “Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, road, the fresh water system and public health – WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS EVER DONE FOR US?”
June 2020
Maria wollte, dass Hans das Hindernis umfährt.
(for a similar example cf. Bettina Remmele (2019): The prosody of sluicing. Production studies on prosodic disambiguation. Tübingen, 397)
Etymologically, a homograph is what is ,the same in writing’ (cf. Greek ὁμός "same" and γράφω, "to write"). The ambiguity phenomenon of that name is triggered by two words that have different meanings and origins, but are spelled the same way. The ambiguity only has to be active in writing where the two possible meanings of the word are indistinguishable, but can be resolved in oral communication. (Contrary to that, a homophone is always pronounced the same way, but has different meanings as well and can be spelled differently in writing.)
The German word ‘umfahren’ from the example can either be stressed on the first syllable (UMfahren) and mean ‘to run (sth.) over’ or be stressed on the second syllable (umFAHren) and translate to ‘to drive around (sth.)’. So, the written sentence does not give any clues as to whether Maria wanted Hans to run the obstacle over or to drive around it. If the sentence is uttered aloud, pronunciation would resolve the ambiguity right away – which is all the better since the two meanings of ‘umfahren’ are basically opposites and Hans should better be certain which one is aimed at before acting on the request. It sure must appear peculiar – especially to non-native German speakers – that, if not for a slight difference in pronunciation, being asked to considerately drive around the pedestrian on the road – “Könntest du den Fußgänger umfahren?” – could very well be the request to ruthlessly run them over. Evidently, there are many more funny effects the use of that kind of ambiguity can cause.
Next to pronunciation, there are more ways to disambiguate the utterance: Grammatically speaking, ‘umfahren’ can either be a particle verb (‘to run sth. over’) or a prefix verb (‘to drive around sth.’). If ‘um’ is a particle, rearranging the sentence can cause it to be separated from the verb ‘fahren’; the same does not happen if you rearrange a sentence with ‘umfahren’ as a prefix verb in it. If Hans did whatever it was Maria aimed at, that can be either described as “Hans fährt das Hindernis um” or “Hans umfährt das Hindernis”.
May 2020
,“Oh, Bear!” said Christopher Robin. “How I do love you!”
“So do I,” said Pooh.’
(Alan Alexander Milne (1926). Winnie-the-Pooh. London: Methuen. Ch. 5.)
The Greek word ἔλλειψις – ellipsis – roughly translates to ,lack’ or ,deficiency’, indicating that there is something missing. In linguistics, what’s missing in case of an ellipsis is usually part of a sentence. The utterer leaves that part out trusting that the interlocutor will be able to guess the intended meaning, thus mentally completing the sentence on their own. However, sometimes there is more than one option what content to add to the shortened sentence to restore its original form and intended meaning, leaving the utterance in which the ellipsis is used with an ambiguity.
In the example from the children’s book ,Winnie-the-Pooh’ by A. A. Milnes, what can be said with certainty is that, according to himself, Pooh does what Christopher Robin does – which is to say: Like Christopher Robin, Pooh loves. What’s missing is the information who that love is directed at. The question one has to ask is whether Pooh means to convey that he, too, loves Pooh, or whether he is saying that he, too, loves the person he is talking to – in short, whether Pooh means to declare his love for himself or his love for Christopher Robin. To avoid the ambiguity resulting from the ellipsis, Pooh would have to retort either ,I love me, too’ or ,I love you, too’.