English Language & Linguistics
Linguistics Challenges: Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
Presumably, the person who wrote the sign below was not being funny. Can you see an amusing (or event disturbing!) side to the sign? How does this come about?
Linguists would say that the text on this sign is ambiguous. That is, it has more than one possible meaning. In this case, there are two possible meanings. The first of these is most likely the intended interpretation:
- If a dog is found fouling harbour property, then the owner of that dog will be prosecuted.
The second interpretation is humorous (or disturbing, depending on your sense of humour!) and is probably not what was intended:
- If a person who owns a dog is found fouling harbour property, then they will be prosecuted.
So the difference is who is doing the fouling: is it the dog, or the owner of the dog?!
Why do two interpretations arise?
Let’s consider why two interpretations arise. Before we do, a quick health warning: you probably struggled to explain this without any linguistic knowledge, and you might find the following explanation quite technical. It’s hardly surprising, given that you’ve not had any linguistics training yet, so don’t worry about the detail. Instead, be amazed by the realisation that if you were able to see the two interpretations and perhaps laugh at the second one, you must have some knowledge of the rules explained below as part of your linguistic ability, even if you’re not consciously aware of them! Most linguistic knowledge is like this, and one of the things that linguists try to do is to work out what the rules you have in your head must be like in order for you to generate and understand sentences you’ve never encountered before.
So to the explanation. To see why two interpretations are possible, first consider how the following sentence differs from the sign above:
OWNERS OF DOGS WILL BE PROSECUTED
The only difference between this and the sign is four words: ‘found fouling harbour property’, but the meaning is quite different. Without these four words, the statement means that ALL dog owners will be prosecuted, whereas in the sign, only owners whose dogs foul the harbour will be prosecuted.
So, we can say that ‘found fouling harbour property’ changes the meaning of dogs from being ALL dogs, to just those which foul the harbour. This change of meaning is called modification: in interpretation (1) – the interpretation probably intended by the sign’s writer – dogs is modified by found fouling harbour property.
Now that you know about modification, we’re halfway to explaining why the sign is ambiguous between the intended and a more humorous reading. You just need to know one more thing first.
Dogs is a noun (a word that names something). Owners is a noun, too. Notice that ‘owners of dogs’ can be replaced in the sign by a noun on its own: people, farmers, gentlemen, etc. Because ‘owners of dogs’ can be replaced in this way, we say that ‘owners of dogs’ behaves like a noun, and call it a noun phrase.
And now (finally!) to the explanation of the ambiguity: both nouns and noun phrases can be modified (have their meaning altered) by other words in the sentence.
If you read the sign to mean interpretation (1), you take the noun dogs on its own as being modified by found fouling harbour property. However, if you read the sign to mean interpretation (2), instead of taking found fouling harbour property as modifying just the noun dogs, you take it as modifying the noun phrase owners of dogs.
Grammatically, both of these readings are possible. You can choose when you read the sign. The chances are, you’d choose interpretation (1), but that choice has to do with which interpretation is the most salient/obvious, not to do with the underlying grammar which permits both as equally good.