12

In sentence

They were rescued by Joseph-Louis Liouville, the son of a captain in Napoleon's army who became a professor in the Collège de France.

who became a professor: Joseph or his father?

Photo of the source: enter image description here Why beauty is truth: a history of symmetry / Ian Stewart. ISBN-13: 978-0-465-08236-0

17
  • 2
    Joseph-Louis Liouville. Your sentence is missing a comma before "who". But I might be wrong. Please include the source of this sentence.
    – Justin
    Sep 29, 2019 at 10:54
  • 7
    This article by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson explains the facts. Joseph-Louis, not his father, became a professor. The sentence as given needs a comma after army to have this reading; as it stands, it indicates that it was the father who became a professor: Sep 29, 2019 at 11:07
  • 2
    << Joseph-Louis Liouville, the son of [a captain in Napoleon's army who became a professor] >> vs the sentence using an incidental parenthetical << Joseph-Louis Liouville, the son of a captain in Napoleon's army, who became a professor = Joseph-Louis Liouville (the son of a captain in Napoleon's army) who became a professor // Depending on the date of the original, the rules surrounding comma usage may have been since tightened on this point. Sep 29, 2019 at 11:11
  • 7
    @Edwin As it stands, the sentence is completely ambiguous. Without knowing the historical facts, there is absolutely no way to tell who became a professor as the sentence stands. A comma would make it unambiguously the son, but no comma does not make it the father even half-unambiguously. The antecedent of who can just as well be “the son of a captain in Napoleon’s army” as “a captain in Napoleon’s army” – or indeed, going by mere nested proximity, the current sentence might be saying that Napoleon’s army became a professor! Sep 29, 2019 at 11:12
  • 3
    @Janus I have to agree that it's not definitive without the comma, but I'd say the default reading is the non-parenthetical one, because the comma would as you say clearly disambiguate. And Gricean requirements demand disambiguation (... and so yes, a rewrite would obviously be the best option). But this (in my second main clause) is down to pragmatics and doubtless somewhatOB. // Whichever way you look at it, nowadays this shouldn't get past an editor. Sep 29, 2019 at 11:18

3 Answers 3

18

Poor punctuation leads to poor understanding. The sentence, as written, is ambiguous.

In context, the math was rescued by the son of an army captain. It's unlikely (but not impossible) that the army captain of the Napoleonic era, would go on to become a professor of mathematics. Nor would a man's father's credentials likely be of greater significance than his own in this scenario. So, we can likely conclude this to refer to credentials of the son.

I'm reminded of the title joke of the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

"Why?" asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"Well, I'm a panda," he says. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

3
  • I deleted my (Janus') answer. But +1 for your answer. Totally loved the joke!
    – Justin
    Sep 29, 2019 at 13:17
  • 3
    @Justin No need to delete. Just click the Community Wiki button when taking someone else's work for an answer. That way you don't earn the rep. Still allows for the answer to be out there.
    – David M
    Sep 29, 2019 at 13:18
  • Another reason: A professor would be likely to rescue the math, a professor's son less so.
    – Barmar
    Sep 30, 2019 at 16:06
5

Obviously there's a missing comma but there's almost zero ambiguity, given the specific facts presented and narrative:

  • given that JLL read through Galois' memoirs AND
  • grasped their importance AND
  • wrote to the French Academy to alert them of their mistake in overlooking them...

JLL seems infinitely more likely to be a professor [and presumably a mathematics professor] than his father. [Unless they were both professors, père et fils, and his father was not necessarily a mathematics professor. But that seems a tortured reading, and in the unlikely event, the article would have said "the professor son of a captain who also became a professor..."]. All this (both explicit and implicit) context allows us to guess around the missing comma, in this particular case.

I mean you could argue that it's linguistically also possible that JLL only later in life, became a professor, and in archaeology not anything mathematics-related. But that sounds very unlikely. It's also possible that JLL was a dolphin. Paraphrasing: all human communication has ambiguities if you scrutinize it hard enough, but we each learn to apply the everyday skill of discarding unlikely and silly hypotheses. This one is no different.

4
  • 1
    The ambiguity is at a grammatical level. Otherwise, does this differ significantly from my answer above?
    – David M
    Sep 29, 2019 at 21:18
  • 1
    I know there is initial ambiguity at a grammatical level, exacerbated by the punctuation error; but then that ambiguity is disspelled almost completely by the context. Your answer doesn't explicitly say that; and it says "The sentence, as written, is ambiguous." which we both seem to be agree to be wrong.
    – smci
    Sep 29, 2019 at 21:22
  • I think the dolphin hypothesis is sufficiently ruled out here, as Napoleon was not known to have any dolphins as captains in his army (and if he had any as captains at all, they would have been in the navy). From biology we can understand that a non-dolphin father's son would also be non-dolphin. Other than the last paragraph, this seems like a good answer.
    – WBT
    Sep 30, 2019 at 14:54
  • Paraphrasing: all human communication has ambiguities if you scrutinize it hard enough, but we each learn to apply the everyday skill of discarding unlikely and silly hypotheses. This one is no different. My serious point about the article is it doesn't explicitly say JLL was the professor, but neither does it explicitly say that JLL wasn't the offspring of a dolphin, via some time-traveler from a future where dolphin reproduction with human traits is very much possible (and if you really want to nitpick, noone proved that JLL was his father's biological son, either).
    – smci
    Sep 30, 2019 at 23:51
2

As requested by OP in comments to post this comment as an answer -

As it stands, the sentence is completely ambiguous. Without knowing the historical facts, there is absolutely no way to tell who became a professor as the sentence stands. A comma would make it unambiguously the son, but no comma does not make it the father even half-unambiguously. The antecedent of who can just as well be “the son of a captain in Napoleon’s army” as “a captain in Napoleon’s army” – or indeed, going by mere nested proximity, the current sentence might be saying that Napoleon’s army became a professor!

Credit - Janus Bahs Jacquet

1
  • 2
    Well done. That's the appropriate thing to do.
    – David M
    Sep 29, 2019 at 13:21

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.