Take the following sentence:

And even if the program inputted one token and then invoked newLine(), wouldn't it input a blank?

I've been told that this sentence has a clear pronoun reference. Why? Couldn't it refer to either program or token?

  • 3
    It seems to me that the sentence has already established that the program is the thing doing the inputting. – bye Aug 26 '14 at 10:43
  • 'Even if Hewy made friends with Dewy, would he be any the happier?' sounds ambiguous to me. Both 'Even if John made friends with Sue, would s/he be any the happier?' are acceptable. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 26 '14 at 10:59
  • What's confusing about this sentence isn't the pronouns, it's the verb. What does "inputted" mean: "provided input" (grammatically, the normal function of -ed), or "accepted input" (semantically, the normal function of a program)? – Dan Bron Aug 26 '14 at 11:23
  • If the reader doesn't know that newLine() is not a program that inputs anything -- token, program, blank, or newLine() -- the antecedent of it is extremely ambiguous. Answer: ask the potential reader. Apparently this is what happened. Solution: eliminate all unnecessary ambiguity (this step requires recognizing it). – John Lawler Aug 26 '14 at 15:56
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    Why not assume newLine() is the referent? It is closest. And it can actually take input of a sort, in the form of a parameter, or a request for system input, whereas a token seldom does so, being something that just gets moved and accounted. Almost all antecedents are ambiguous if you play dumb. Those rules just aren't convincing. Basically, none of this makes sense out of context. Even in context, wouldn't it output a blank. – Jon Jay Obermark Aug 27 '14 at 0:17

Grammatically, yes. Semantically, no.

The first sentence has program as the subject of input, with token being the object. Since the following sentence uses the same word in an obviously parallel manner, we unambiguously deduce that the subject is the same, especially because tokens do not usually input anything in programs.

As Edwin shows in his comment, the grammatical ambiguity can be made semantic as well (making the sentence properly ambiguous) if you change the sentence around so that the verb in the second clause can plausibly apply to either subject or object of the first clause:

When John gets to use Steve as a punching bag, is he doing him a favour?

It's unclear here whether Steve is doing John a favour by letting himself be used as a punching bag, or whether John is doing Steve (presumably a masochist) a favour by using him as a punching bag, because neither interpretation really makes that much sense, and both are somewhat unlikely.

Ambiguity is usually the result of two or more possible interpretations being too close in likelihood, more than of them just being there.

  • "Grammatically, yes. Pragmatically, no."? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 26 '14 at 16:15

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