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Today I saw this headline for a news article online:

Man sentenced for murdering his 10th wife

I can't tell if a sentence of this nature means that the man has murdered 10 people (all of which were his previous wives) or if it means that the man has murdered one person (this person being his 10th wife). In summary, does this sentence imply that the man has murdered 10 people or 1 person?

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It is ambiguous, but reading the article, he murdered wife #10 and not the others. –  mplungjan Apr 10 at 14:26
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Well, it was entertaining to speculate based on the headline :) –  oerkelens Apr 10 at 16:19
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Conversely, "man eats his 10th donut" would almost always mean that he ate 10 donuts, not that he had 10 donuts and ate the tenth. But the same ambiguity is there. –  Steve Jessop Apr 10 at 18:04
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@SteveJessop I think that's because the only thing we really do donuts is eat them - if you "have" a donut, we generally mean you ate it, because people don't go around with collections of donuts. –  schodge Apr 10 at 18:40
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@schodge: indeed, the expected end of your relationship with a donut is that you eat it. You can sort of imagine someone dropping 9 and finally managing to eat the 10th, but that's not what the phrase initially suggests :-) And you'd hope it's even more unlikely that someone would marry 10 times and murder all 10 wives, than that someone would number their donut collection. It's a common "found joke" to present ambiguous text from newspaper headlines or copy, where the unintended meaning is somehow absurd. This is an unfunny case, but not unusual in terms of the level of ambiguity. –  Steve Jessop Apr 10 at 18:48

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Headlines are not always monointerpretable. They tend to have several interpretations - which is good, they make you read the article for more.

Actually, there are even more possibilities than the two you mention.

  • he may have multiple wives, and he killed the tenth one
  • he was married ten times - this one he murdered
  • he may be married or not, but he kills married women. This was the tenth victim
  • he was married ten times, he killed all of his wives

It can even be a combination. From just the headline, the exact meaning can only be guessed, although we can sometimes discard some of the more outrageous interpretations (sometimes).

So, no, we cannot deduce from just the headline how many people were murdered by this man or how many of his victims he was married to. But that is not a bad thing - a headline is usually followed by an article that (one may hope) will tell us exactly what happened.

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The second interpretation is almost surely correct. If he's in a country where polygamy is illegal, the fact that he was polygamous would be noteworthy enough to make the headline as well. If it was other people's wives, it would say "married woman" instead of "wife". And it's highly likely he'd be in prison if was known he killed 9 previous wives! (I don't at all disagree with your commentary on the actual ambiguity of the language, just noting you can narrow it down to a highly-probable meaning fairly easily.) –  schodge Apr 10 at 18:44
    
Of course, he might well be in a country where polygamy is not illegal. But even then, ten wives is usually an exception. But narrowing it down is much less fun anyway :) –  oerkelens Apr 10 at 18:49
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Perhaps we should have an English Language Usage Golf like the Code Golf SO... –  schodge Apr 10 at 18:51
    
@schodge - "wife" is shorter than "married woman" and headlines have limited space –  HorusKol Apr 11 at 3:50

It says a man was sentenced for murder. The victim was his 10th wife. The rest we don't know.

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By itself I would say it's ambiguous.

It could also mean that he had murdered 10 people who were other people's wives. Of course in reality, it's likely to mean that he has murdered one person - who was his 10th wife!

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I sympathise with your dilemma. Neither can I tell what it means. It seems to me it could mean one of a number things:

a) That he has murdered one person, who happened to be his 10th wife.

b) That he has murdered his present, and nine former wives of his.

c) That he has murdered 10 'wives', none of them necessarily his own wife, but each the wife of someone.

or d) He was a polygamist who had murdered ten of his wives.

A combination of some of the above is also possible.

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He was found guilty of murdering wife number 10. Sentencing comes after the guilt is established, but before someone is sent to prison (and/or other penalties if appropriate). My assumption would be a long prison term, forfeiture of assets to her family and that he has trouble getting dates (at least one hopes).

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