Francis Galton originally used the term "regression to mediocrity" to refer to the phenomenon that children of very tall parents were on average less tall. More generally, the heights of children over multiple generations would regress toward the mean, or average, height of the population.

Today, "regression" is used to describe a particular statistical model in which data is distributed around a mean.

Galton writes,

The mean regression ... is easily ascertained

intending to mean something like

It is easy to ascertain the mean amount of regression

but a careless reader could instead understand

It is easy to ascertain this thing called a "mean regression"

of which the contemporary meaning of regression is a natural extension. A phenomenon ("regression") was described with a statistical model, but the name of the phenomenon came to be used to refer to the model itself.

I'm struggling to think of a less esoteric example, although I feel like there should be more of these. Is there a name for this kind of error? Are there more familiar examples of it, ideally ones that don't rely on somewhat archaic language?

  • How about "pun"?
    – Jim
    Oct 30 '14 at 4:28
  • I don't see how this is a pun. For one thing, it's a mistake and not a play on words. Oct 30 '14 at 4:43
  • To me a mean regression could either be "a reversion to the average" or it could be a regression that takes pleasure in hurting others- that's a pun in my book.(A pun doesn't have to be on purpose.) However it's not clear to me that that's even what you're asking about because you go on to talk about "the name of the phenomenon being used to refer to the model itself" which kind of sounds like a metonym Could you please refine and clarify your question?
    – Jim
    Oct 30 '14 at 4:50
  • 1
    Malapropism, in a way.
    – Kris
    Oct 30 '14 at 6:54
  • OP, does this fit what you are thinking of? "Amadan, what's wrong?" "Doctor, you have to help me, I kicked the bucket!" "You look alive to me..." "What? No, I mean the bucket in front of your office, it was full of sand, I think I broke my toe..." Possibly duplicate
    – Amadan
    Oct 30 '14 at 7:37

I think what you are asking is syntactic ambiguity (also called amphiboly or amphibology).

Syntactic ambiguity is a situation where a sentence may be interpreted in more than one way due to ambiguous sentence structure.

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 meets the definition of syntactic ambiguity.

More specifically, it can be defined as globally ambiguous. It is mentioned as a form of syntactic ambiguity along with locally ambiguous.

A globally ambiguous sentence is one that has at least two distinct interpretations. After one has read the entire sentence, the ambiguity is still present. Rereading the sentence does not resolve the ambiguity. Global ambiguities are often unnoticed because the reader tends to choose the meaning he or she understands to be more probable.

Wikipedia article lists some examples also. Two simple ones:

  • 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.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syntactic_ambiguity

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