When I was in university, one of my Linguistics professors showed me an unusual phrase:
“the daughter of the king’s son”
This might not look like much, but it is actually really interesting. Take a look at these two sentences:
The daughter of the king’s son is a boy.
The daughter of the king’s son is a girl.
Wait a second! Can both of these be right? The answer is yes. That’s because the phrase at the top is ambiguous — that is, it has more than one meaning. Take a look at the sentences below. This time, I have used brackets to mark different people in each one, and I have written what each sentence means underneath.
[The daughter of the king]’s [son] is a boy.
(The daughter of the king is a person, and she has a son, who is of course a boy.)
[The daughter] of [the king’s son] is a girl.
(The king’s son is a person, and he has a daughter, who is of course a girl.)
Granted, this is a somewhat tricky example, but there are plenty of simpler examples of ambiguity in English. Consider this next sentence:
I attacked the man with a bat.
This is just one sentence, but it has two meanings:
There was a man with a bat, and I attacked him.
I used a bat to attack a man.
Often, ambiguity happens because two different words sound the same. In the above example, a bat can be a wooden stick, or it can be a small, furry animal with wings. This means we can actually get two more meanings from that sentence!
There was a man holding a small, furry animal with wings, and I attacked him.
I used a small, furry animal with wings to attack a man.
Sometimes, these words that sound the same but have different meanings also have different spellings, which means they make sentences ambiguous only when we are speaking. We often use this in jokes, so take a look at a joke I learnt when I was seven or eight:
Person A: “If a bear were chasing you, would you run into school?” Person B: “Yeah, obviously.” Person A: “You would run into school with a bear behind!?”
Funny? Maybe not. But it is a good example of ambiguity. Bear sounds the same as bare, which means naked or without covering. Behind is a preposition, but it can also refer to a person’s buttocks (your butt). The humour of the joke comes when the listener understands the second meaning of these words, in which case, he would understand the sentence as this:
“You would run into school with no trousers or underwear on!?”