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I remember the phrase "old Norwegian history professor" being offered as a good example of confusion that can arise in certain English phrases, but can't explain it well. (That is, is the professor an old professor that teaches Norwegian history? Is the professor an old Norwegian that teaches history? Is the professor a teacher of old Norwegian history?)

More specifically, I'd like to know if there are other examples of this confusion.

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closed as too broad by tchrist, choster, Hellion, user49727, Bradd Szonye Sep 25 '13 at 23:18

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Related: What is the rule for adjective order? – tchrist Sep 25 '13 at 13:53
The final sentence is far too broad for our format here. – tchrist Sep 25 '13 at 13:53
See 'en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyphen#Compound_modifiers for discussion of disambiguating at least some of these issues. Commas also have a disambiguating role (an old, Norwegian history professor). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 25 '13 at 18:29
This question has already been answered and completed; the best answer has been flagged and set. – Mei Sep 26 '13 at 16:18
up vote 6 down vote accepted

old Norwegian history professor

The phrase can be interpreted in three ways:

  • A professor who teaches old Norwegian history
  • An old professor who teaches Norwegian history
  • An old Norwegian professor who teaches history.

A grammatically correct sentence which can be interpreted in more than one way is said to have syntactic ambiguity

Syntactic ambiguity arises not from the range of meanings of single words, but from the relationship between the words and clauses of a sentence, and the sentence structure implied thereby. When a reader can reasonably interpret the same sentence as having more than one possible structure, the text is equivocal and meets the definition of syntactic ambiguity

Two examples

John saw the man on the mountain with a telescope. (Who has the telescope? John, the man on the mountain, or the mountain?)

Flying planes can be dangerous. (Either the act of flying planes is dangerous, or planes that are flying are dangerous.)

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If we use it sentence-initially (and thus capitalise it), there’s even a fourth interpretation possible: “Old Norwegian history teacher” could be a teacher of the history of the Old Norwegian language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 25 '13 at 21:47
I bet he's claiming 4 salaries. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 26 '13 at 9:50

Following on from Mari-Lou A's post on syntactic ambiguity - 'When a reader can reasonably interpret the same sentence as having more than one possible structure' - I've come across an article from the real world (well, the courts) where the exact meaning of

'When a reader can reasonably interpret the same sentence as having more than one possible structure'

is debated. The court ruling on the grammar involved was:

For example, the statement, “This basketball team has a seven-foot center, a huge power forward, and two large guards, who do spectacular dunks,” differs from the statement, “This basketball team has a seven-foot center, a huge power forward, and two large guards who do spectacular dunks.” The first statement conveys that all four players do spectacular dunks. The latter statement conveys that only the guards do so.

( http://www.adamsdrafting.com/dont-rely-on-commas-for-disambiguation/ )

I think we'd all agree with this opinion - certainly Ken Adams, commenting on the proceedings in the article, agrees that the court has got its grammar right.

What he takes exception to is that the man on the Clapham omnibus (or its US quivalent) should reasonably be expected to interpret the two sentences the way trained linguists would.

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I would think :

  • old Norwegian history professor = he is old, and still teaches history
  • old Norwegian History professor = he may be young, but teaches the history of old Norway
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Surely the second would be Old Norwegian History professor? In any event, this isn't really an answer to the question. – TimLymington Sep 25 '13 at 13:43
It was a misprint, and Mr Andrew Leach is right : old for Old in my answer (second line) ; anyway the spelling, in the question is not consistent, and I perhaps misunderstood. (mark thorin) – ex-user2728 Sep 25 '13 at 22:54

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