Classroom Activities: Ambiguous Language

Language is full of ambiguity.  Not only do we have words with two different meanings, but we have sentences which–because of structural ambiguity–can have multiple meanings.

One of the more famous examples that illustrates these issues is the following sentence:

I shot the elephant in my pajamas. 

This sentence has two structural interpretations.  One where “in my pajamas” modifies the verb—so that “I” am wearing them.  The other where “in my pajamas modifies “the elephant,” so that the elephant is wearing “my pajamas.”

However, there is also a word-level ambiguity in this sentence, since we don’t know whether or not “shot” means “with a gun” or “with a camera.”

Students need to learn to control these ambiguities–exploiting them when they want to let the reader wonder, and avoiding them when they’re trying to limit the possible interpretations of their words.  Certainly, if you’re trying to sell newspapers or attract people to your website, an ambiguous headline like the one in this link can attract a lot of attention. (Fair warning:  the headline is rated PG-13.)

http://twitter.com/TheDudeDean/status/116947433900081152

In fact, so many newspapers have exploited such ambiguities, that word geeks have started collecting them:

http://www.fun-with-words.com/ambiguous_headlines.html

On the other hand, in an academic paper–where students are supposed to prove what they’ve learned–student writers should not leave their professor guessing about the meanings of their words.

One fun way to get them to pay attention to these differences is assign them to collect examples for themselves–and to label them as either a word-level or a structural ambiguity. Fair warning, as the first link illustrates, many of headlines students could find may include ambiguities that are quite suggestive.  Should you decide to use this activity in your own classroom, you should set clear guidelines on what is appropriate for your classroom.

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About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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