Don’t misunderstand, this article has nothing against the church. Instead, it is about a line which I stumbled upon on a web site today, which read:

1. Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.

churchThe line was claimed to be taken from a Church Bulletin, although my Christian friend found it questionable. But let’s say, if it was really from the Church Bulletin, why would it talk about those “who are sick of our church” anyway?  In fact, the funny thing about this sentence is that upon closer inspection, there can actually be two readings: one which is somewhat absurd (but perhaps more obvious at first glance), and, one which sounds more reasonable (and is thus probably the intended reading).

Ambiguity is a very special characteristic of human languages. It is normally not allowed in computer languages, for instance, or in specialized languages such as mathematics. However, it also makes human languages flexible and, at times, fun.

Syntactic Ambiguity

Ambiguity can arise at different linguistic levels. The above sentence is an example of ambiguity which arises at the syntactic level. The two possible readings of the above sentence can be represented by the following two syntactic structures:

  1. Remember in prayer [[the manyi] [whoi are sick of our church and community]].
  2. Remember in prayer [[the manyi] [whoi are sick] of our church and community].

Or, represented graphically in (much simplified) syntactic trees:

Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.

In (1), the entire phrase “who are sick of our church and community” is taken to be a relative clause modifying “the many (people),” whereas in (2), what we “remember in prayer” are the many sick people in our church and community.

Syntactic ambiguity is a common type of ambiguity. Its existence is due to the fact that sentences are hierarchically and not linearly structured. In other words, sentences are not processed word by word from the beginning to the end in our mind. Instead, some words have closer relations with other words and form basic phrases with them; these phrases in turn combine with nearby phrases with close relations to form larger phrases, until we finally have a complete sentence. As a result, two sentences which have the same apparent linear order may have different hierarchical, syntactic structures, as illustrated in the example above. Consider the following additional (classic but not as fun) examples:

2. He danced with the girl in blue jeans.

3. He saw the girl with a telescope.

Lexical Ambiguity

Sometimes ambiguity can arise as a result of the multiple meanings of a word in a sentence. The following classic joke, claimed to be from a newspaper headline, for example, has at least two readings.

4. Iraqi Head Seeks Arms

Both the words “head” and “arms” have multiple meanings. They can either refer to the body parts, or “leader” and “weapons” respectively. Therefore one can either interpret the sentence by their face values (body parts), or as “The Iraqi leader seeks weapons,” or even as a combination of the two.

Phonological Ambiguity

Occasionally, we mishear others’ words and are taken aback by the eccentricity of them. Very often such are cases of phonological ambiguity. Phonological ambiguity occurs because natural speech is connected. However, when our brain processes speech, it has to break down the stream of sounds into individual meaningful words, and sometimes there are more than one way to do that. Consider the following example:

5. He’s got a new direction.

In some accents, the phrase “new direction” [nudɪˈrɛkʃən] sounds exactly the same as “nude erection” in connected speech, so one may mistake the sentence for “He’s got a nude erection“.

Pragmatic Ambiguity

Some other times, a sentence may have a unique surface interpretation, though when it is used in different contexts, it can trigger different associations and thus different interpretations. Let’s take a look at the following example:

6. A banner outside a secondhand shop: We exchange anything – bicycles, washing machines, etc. Why not bring your wife along and get a wonderful bargain?

The sentence “Why not bring your wife along and get a wonderful bargain?” is unambiguous both lexically and syntactically. However, when it follows the previous sentence which says “We exchange anything – bicycles, washing machines, etc.,” one is tempted to associate the action “bring your wife along” with the context “we exchange anything“. Consequently, we might interpret the meaning of the sentence as bringing one’s wife along so as to exchange her for something else (someone else’s wife?)! How bitterly hilarious!