1

Consider the following sentence which may appear, say, in a changelog of a website or an app:

Order a taxi button on most pages.

  1. Does it allow multiple parsings, i.e.
    • there is an entity named "a taxi button" that you can order from most pages;
    • on most pages there is a button that can be used to order a taxi.
  2. If it does, which one is the more "natural"?
  3. Is there a rule that would establish one of the parsings as primary and if there is, what is its name?
  4. How do I search for another example of this kind? What are the common terms to be searched for if I want to find out more on this topic (read more examples, if nothing else)?
  5. What if I change the sentence to "Taxi order button on most pages"? Does the problem persist, in particular, can the word "taxi" be read as a verb meaning "ship it somewhere using a taxi" now?
  • Order Taxi button on most pages. "Order a taxi" here functions like a name or title of the button. As such, it is an adjective describing the button. By using caps, the ambiguity is lifted. General idea: the title or name of an object. – Lambie Nov 29 '16 at 14:51
  • 'Order' could also be interpreted as something from SQL... – John Feltz Dec 29 '16 at 20:10
  • "Order a taxi button on most pages" is, as a stand-alone sentence, utterly meaningless, because it has so many totally unrelated meanings. Do you place a "taxi button" in some order? Do you call the takeout place to order a "taxi button"? Do you have to go to "most pages" and do this "ordering" on each one? Are you looking for the "Order a taxi button" which appears on the most pages in the app? – Hot Licks Jan 28 '17 at 17:42
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  1. Yes, this sentence does allow multiple parsings

  2. Which one would be more natural would generally be indicated by context.

For example, if this were a changelog for a taxi website, I would read it as "There is a button to order a taxi on most pages". If it were a shopping site like Amazon, I would read it as "Order a button for taxis on most pages".

  1. This is a job for punctuation. In this exact instance, containing the description within quotes would clarify it nicely:

'Order a taxi' button on most pages
Order a 'taxi button' on most pages
Order a taxi 'button on most' pages
Order a 'taxi' button on most pages

  1. Search for "Ambiguous sentences in English".

  2. "Taxi order button on most pages" is clearer, but could still be improved with quotes. However, I don't think most people would read the word Taxi as a verb there; they might read it as a button to order(as in request) a taxi, a button to show taxi order (as in sequence), a button to order(as in command) a taxi... etc.

However, don't overthink it. A lot of ambiguity is cleared up just by understanding the context.

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Broadly, you are interested in the topic of ambiguity. The example you have shows syntactic ambiguity rather than lexical ambiguity because the meaning differences are mostly due to different parses of the sentence, rather than different senses of the words.

Ambiguity is relevant to several sub-disciplines disciplines of linguistics (in decreasing order of relevance): semantics, psycholinguistics, and syntax. The answer to your question #2 would most likely be in psycholinguistics publications studying the role of lexical knowledge in disambiguation.

Here are two random resources that might serve as decent starting points.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ambiguity/
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1207/s15516709cog2002_1/pdf

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