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I have a question regarding the usage of the definite article. Here is an excerpt:

Those were the days of lofty promises made by a hopeful candidate. Today, we are faced with the disappointing record of a failed President. The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven’t offered much hope.

I think there are two possibilities of interpretation for the italicized part:

  1. A kind of disappointing record that you usually see from a failed president.
  2. The disappointing record that you see nowadays from the present president, who is described as a failed President.

Which of these is an appropriate interpretation? Or is either okay?

  • Clearly, in context -- especially when faced with "Today, we are faced with" in that context -- the current president is being referenced. But not directly, only inferentially. What is stated is only (1); it is up to the reader to follow the blatant clues to come to conclusion (2). This is more likely to convince those who like to think they come to their own conclusions, or so the theory goes. In fact, those who actually do come to their own conclusions tend to treat rhetoric like this as a fraud indicator, rather like an email from Nigeria offering riches. – John Lawler May 16 '14 at 15:01
  • From your impression, I guess it is because of the ambiguity this phrase has. Syntactically, either is possible, semantically, it is ambiguous and different reader by reader. – Tom May 16 '14 at 23:20
  • In speech, it's not ambiguous; in writing, because there's no intonation, it is. This is true of virtually all written sentences, btw. – John Lawler May 16 '14 at 23:24
  • Yes, I agree with you.. I have heard the simile you said before but never expected to see it here. Thanks. – Tom May 16 '14 at 23:28
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In the context you present, 2).

  • Thanks for your feedback. By the way, is the phrase really crystal clear, or it does have ambiguity? – Tom May 16 '14 at 23:22
  • @Tom - That would depend on the content of the text that precedes what you quoted. If there had been a discussion of previous presidents who were described as having been failures, then the possibility of inferring 1) would be greater. When I read the entire article, which mentioned only President Obama, it was clear that the only possible interpretation was 2). – Erik Kowal May 17 '14 at 1:08
  • That would also influence the intonation in speech; a noun phrase like a failed President is pronounced with a flatted (lowered) intonation if it is intended to refer to some noun phrase that's been mentioned in discourse. Intonation cues like this are one of the many redundant ways we cope with the inherent ambiguity of language. This is what I (and other linguists) mean when we say that redundancy in natural language is a feature, not a bug. There are always many ways to say something, and many cues for interpreting them, all overlapping. It's not elegant; it's evolved, and sloppy. – John Lawler May 17 '14 at 1:16
  • I've got the points! Appreciate it. – Tom May 17 '14 at 1:59

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