I have posted a question titled "Why does paper cut so well?" (on the Physics stack exchange). After a while, I noticed that over 40 people understood the question as "Why is it so easy to cut paper (with a pair of scissors)?". But what I meant was that it was easy to cut things with paper, paper being the cutting material. So I edited the question to make it more explicit.

I am not a native English speaker, and I completely missed the ambiguity. And now that I know about it, even if I force myself, I am unable to understand the question "Why does paper cut so well?" as "Why is it so easy to cut through paper?". I would understand if the question was "How can paper be cut so well?". So using "to be cut" as opposed to "to cut".

I wonder what I am missing. How is it possible to understand the question that way?

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    If it's any consolation I actually read it the way you intended when I first read it. It immediately made me wonder about paper cuts. So, I'm also at a bit of a loss as to why you would find that people understood paper as the material to be cut and not the material that would do the cutting. – psosuna Sep 13 at 19:54
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    @psosuna I also asked on IRC, and about half the people understood it either way. So it was split there too. – coniferous_smellerULPBG-W8ZgjR Sep 13 at 19:55
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    I would have thought the second meaning would be expressed by 'why is paper cut so easily? ' I immediately accepted your own meaning relating to paper-cuts on skin. – Nigel J Sep 13 at 20:29
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    If you make cut transitive the ambiguity goes away: Why does paper cut fingers so easily? – John Lawler Sep 13 at 22:57
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    My immediate interpretation of the title was the one you did not intend. But upon reading the question I quickly understood your actual meaning. Very understandable that to a non-native the alternative interpretation wouldn't be obvious. My guess is that for me, my quick grasp of paper as a noun plus cut as a verb led me to associate with "cutting paper". Multiple answers below explain the grammar behind this interpretation. – Dave Costa Sep 13 at 23:59
up vote 55 down vote accepted

This kind of construction has been called an "internal argument as subject" construction, but is more broadly known as a "middle construction," as in between active and passive. It strikes me as not particularly unusual, if maybe a little bit literary.

For example, from Massam (1991), where "_" marks the empty structural object:

This article analyses middle constructions in English, accounting for their key syntactic and semantic properties. The analysis rests on the observation that there are certain similarities between middle, tough and recipe-context null-object constructions, such as in (ia-c).

(i) (a) This bread cuts _ easily.

(b) This bread is easy to cut _.

(c) Take bread. Cut _ carefully (and arrange _ nicely).

Here are some more examples of IASCs, from the same article:

(7) (a) The brown bread cuts easily.

(b) This blouse washes like a dream.

(c) The soup that eats like a meal. (Campbell's advertisement)

From the author's conclusion, which I will attempt to summarize at the end:

In this way, middles are claimed to ... involve non-thematic chains which are licensed by being co-indexed with a chain which does receive a theta-role [and to] involve empty reflexives which do not arise via Move-α but which are base-generated. ... The view of middles utilized here is one which considers their defining property to consist of an element of modality which appears in INFL and which is usually further spelled out by an overt adverbial or modal element. It is this element which is able (universally) to license a non-thematic subject which serves to identify a null object.

In other words, the author of the paper suggests not that "paper" moves from the object position to the subject, but rather the presence of an adverbial like "well" or "easily" (or a modal*) allows for the use of a patient** as a structural subject in an English middle construction.

After all, it would be odd to say "?Paper cuts" to mean "Paper is cuttable."

So in other words, the fact that you want to say something like "You can cut paper easily" allows you to instead say the English sentence "Paper cuts easily," which is indeed ambiguous with "Paper cuts [other things] easily."

That some people analyzed your title as one or the other depends on the fact that paper is both cut often and cuts people frequently (after all, we have the word "paper cut"), and it just depends on which association came to mind more easily for each person.

For example, me, and other people who interpreted your sentence as "paper is easy to cut" might have been thinking about scissors gliding through paper.

* An example of a modal licensing middle construction is "This blouse won't wash" (p. 126, example 27.f).

** In linguistics, the patient is the recipient of the action of the verb, as in "Mary cuts the paper."

Citations:

Massam, D. (1992). Null objects and non-thematic subjects. Journal of Linguistics, 28(01), 115. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022226700015012

  • More about the middle construction in this answer. – John Lawler Sep 13 at 22:55
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    @JohnLawler thanks for the link! It's interesting Levin describes the middle construction as "often" having an adverbial or modal, whereas Massam describes it as licensing the construction. – Azor Ahai Sep 13 at 23:06
  • Massam is using a recent MIT theory, with completely different rules and sets of presuppositions. Naturally they're not in agreement. – John Lawler Sep 14 at 0:00
  • @john Ah, I see. I haven't read Levin's text, I was just going off your quote, so that makes sense. – Azor Ahai Sep 14 at 0:36
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    @jpmc26 Welcome to academic syntax! Here's an actual markov chain generator based on Chomsky's writings: rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl – Azor Ahai Sep 14 at 18:36

It might have to do with the describing construction that exists in English in the form of:

Object + Applicable action + adjective

In this case, let me change the verb cut to shred.

Consider this passage, then:

Paper shreds well. Glass, however, doesn't. It shatters before it can be shred, when run through a shredder.

Here, it's not very ambiguous that we're talking about the property of the materials paper and glass, and their degree of ability to be shred. However, the context necessary for the passage to be understood that way is present.

If the passage were just:

Paper shreds well. Glass, however, doesn't.

...then it is a bit more ambiguous. Logically speaking, paper as a material is not a worthwhile material to do any shredding, whereas glass would, so logically this doesn't make sense. Therefore, the other sense needs to be taken into account, to make logical sense of what's being said.

It's likely that whoever mistook your context for the other context didn't immediately think credible that paper would be the cutting agent and not the material that is being cut.

  • I believe that you mean Object + Applicable action + Adverb. – Scott 5 hours ago

As somebody who also got the wrong meaning of your question. There is another reason: how expected a concept is.

As the other posters have said your sentence is constructed in a way that was ambiguous, so people use their experience to asses what you are asking.

It is much much much more common to discuss cutting paper than being cut by paper*, so people presume you are discussing cutting paper, as 9 time out of 10 you will be.


  • unless you are holding a bleeding finger under their nose and saying "why does paper cut so well?"

This is an interesting case. The difficulty is often spotting such things in your own writing, or when editing work from someone with the same viewpoint. This is just as true for native speakers, in fact we may be more likely to pick up on a second meaning with a slang or idiomatic background.

It is of course easily avoided. You can rewrite the sentence – "Why does paper cut skin so well?" – or give a gentle steer in the right direction – "Why does paper cut so effectively?" (instead of "Why does paper cut so easily?"). In technical work, rephrasing is often best, to remove the residual ambiguity.

Suppose that you'd instead asked "Why does paper tear so well?" It would be completely obvious that you meant "Why is it so easy to tear paper?" and not "Why does paper tear other things so well?" In that case, the second parsing doesn't really make sense. However, in the case of "cut", both parsings make sense and some people picked the wrong one. Also, cutting paper with something is much more common than cutting something with paper, so people may well think of the wrong interpretation first.

So, yes, your title was ambiguous. However, the body of the question was clear so, anyone who misunderstood clearly hadn't read the actual question.

I suggest that this is an example of the confusion between transitive and intransitive verbs found in American speech. If the sentence had contained an object of the verb cut there would have been no confusion.

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    What "confusion between transitive and intransitive verbs found in American speech"? – Azor Ahai 13 hours ago

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