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I have to do syntax trees for the two interpretations of this ambiguous sentence:

"The poor child's story is sad"

According to what I was told, one interpretation refers to the child and the other to the story but the problem is that I really can't see how to do these trees.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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  • If you don't get a good answer here I'd suggest you try the linguists' stack exchange. – S Conroy May 17 at 13:57
  • @SConroy doing parse trees is off topic on Linguistics.SE. Dispelling ambiguity might be on-topic here. – Mitch May 17 at 14:24
  • @Mitch. Ah, ok. Thanks for info. – S Conroy May 17 at 14:25
  • As a parse tree, 'is sad' can only be a VP (or predicate), and the NP 'the poor child's story' is the subject. So parse-wise there is only one parse. Semantically however... whether the story is sad or ... no I don't see how anything is ambiguous here. The story is sad. It says nothing about whether the child is happy or sad. You'd expect the child to also be a bit sad, but maybe the child is an optimist? – Mitch May 17 at 14:26
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    The ambiguity could be whether it is the child that is poor or the child's story. It seems unlikely that anyone would describe a poor story as sad, but if it's just an exercise... – Minty May 17 at 16:49
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I can't really tell you how to draw your graphs, because there are many different drawing and labeling conventions. A minimalist graph looks quite different from a classical transformationalist graph, and neither will look at all like a dependency or a traditionalist Reed-Kellogg graph.

What I can do is point out the major components of the sentence, which you can adapt to your specific needs.

The basic Subject/Predicate structure of your sentence is not ambiguous: the Subject is realized by the determinate noun phrase The poor child's story and the Predicate is realized by the verb phrase is sad. The VP consists of a copula realized as the verb is and its complement realized as the adjective sad.

The ambiguities arise in your parse of the Subject:

  • What's the function of the possessive? Is it a determinative, as in John's hat, or a modifier, as in men's clothing? That is, is this story one about or told by a particular child, or a story intended for children-in-general?

  • What does poor modify? Is this a story about or told by a particular poor child, or one intended for poor children; or is it a badly told story for children-in-general, contrasted with one or more well-told stories?

  • By the same token, which noun phrase does The determine -- the one headed by child, or the one headed by story?

Each of these choices will give you a different structure for the noun phrase, which you can represent according to whatever conventions you are called upon to use.

  • +1 for the list of different graphs. I like the distinction between childrens stories and children's stories (aimed at v written by) that one modern apostrophe convention gives. – Edwin Ashworth May 17 at 16:28

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