Author Topic: Why is this ambiguous?  (Read 627 times)

Offline oscarw

  • New Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 2
Why is this ambiguous?
« on: January 05, 2017, 12:36:31 AM »
Can someone please explain why this sentence is ambiguous?

"John lifted the heaviest horse"

Thanks very much!

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1535
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Why is this ambiguous?
« Reply #1 on: January 05, 2017, 09:08:14 AM »
Is this a homework question? Without more context, I'm hesitant to answer it for you, based on our policy to not do homework for others.

But I'll give you a hint: what defines "heaviest" here? You might try thinking of specific scenarios (select a set of horses-- imagine 5 horses and give them names-- and also a set of lifters) to see what the different interpretations might be.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline oscarw

  • New Linguist
  • *
  • Posts: 2
Re: Why is this ambiguous?
« Reply #2 on: January 06, 2017, 05:48:40 PM »
Thank you for your answer. My background is not in linguistics, but I ran across a similar example in something I was reading and was not sure where the ambiguity arises.

I understand two readings: (1) John lifted the heaviest horse from among a set of relevant horses or (2) John lifted a horse heavier than those horses lifted by other relevant individuals.

But I was confused because these two readings seem like they could coincide. For instance, John could have lifted a horse heavier than those lifted by other individuals but this same horse could still be the absolute heaviest/weight the greatest amount. Is it necessary that these two readings be mutually exclusive.

Thanks again!

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1535
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: Why is this ambiguous?
« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2017, 05:53:54 PM »
Quote
Is it necessary that these two readings be mutually exclusive.
No!

Good question. Very often ambiguous readings are similar, sometimes even systematically similar.

In fact, in some cases one reading is always a subset of the other. In this case, if John lifted the heaviest horse, then no other person lifted a horse that is heavier than the horse that John lifted-- whether or not the horse that John lifted is just the heaviest of the ones the group lifted, or the heaviest in the world.

This is an interesting example of an ambiguity because it isn't the same as a lot of textbook examples of ambiguity (for example, the "Mary saw the man with the binoculars" type, or the "Someone hates everyone" type). The ambiguity seems to be in the reference set for "the", but also based on where you put emphasis in the sentence.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.