There are times when you are faced with sentences that do not seem to make any sense. This is called syntactic ambiguity. Unless the sentences are unintentionally written to be ambiguous, these are sentences that are grammatically correct. However it might take you some time to fully grasp the intended meaning. Moreover, there are sentences that can be interpreted in many different ways. It can be frustrating, but it can be fun as well.
What is syntactic ambiguity?
Syntactic ambiguity occurs when a single sentence can have two or more meanings. Grammatical ambiguity is another term for it. Lexical ambiguity on the other hand happens when a single word in the sentence can have two or more meanings.
How to distinguish syntactic ambiguities
You might be wondering how syntactic ambiguities can be distinguished from other regular sentences if you are listening to them. One of the ways is to look for prosodic (rhythmic) cues, such as intonation and stress. For example, in the sentence, "The old men and women sat on a bench," you cannot immediately say that the women are also old. If this is the case, the duration in which the word "men" is pronounced with be quite long. At the same time there will be a high rise in the speech contour of the word, "women." It the sentence means that the women are also old, the prosodic features will not be present.
If you are not a linguist you might be wondering where these syntactically ambiguous sentences are used. Oftentimes you will find them in newspaper headlines as well as in catchy and humorous advertising slogans. Often, newspaper headlines are written in a format that is described as a telegraphic style. In instances like these, the copula is often omitted, in which case syntactic ambiguity is created.
It's in the interpretation
There was a headline during WWII that read, "Eighth Army Push Bottles Up Germans." You know very well that this means that the push exerted by the Eighth Army constricted the movements of the Germans – this was the actual intention in this headline. However, for some people, it could mean something else.
Take for example this sentence: "The chicken is ready to eat." Was the writer saying that the chicken is hungry and is ready for a feeding or the chicken is already cooked and is therefore ready to be eaten?
Groucho Marx had a joke that went like this: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know. What came to your mind when you first read this? In the first reading it could mean that the guy was in his pajamas when he shot an elephant. The second time you read it, doesn't it look like the elephant was in his pajamas when he shot it. Do you get the pattern?
Now take a look at some more that were compiled from actual newspaper headlines:
• Stolen Painting Found by Tree
• Milk Drinkers are Turning to Powder
• Old School Pillars are Replaced by Alumni
• Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
• Dealers Will Hear Car Talk at Noon
Maybe you'd like to find some more the next time you read the papers.