Today’s headline ambiguity is brought to you by the letter S. S has three major roles in English – marking plural nouns (the intended reading of this headline), 3rd person present simple verbs (the unintended reading of this headline) and (with an apostrophe) possession.

The intended reading is a noun phrase with a noun phrase modifier and a plural noun. The unintended reading is a clause with a noun phrase and a verb. The unintended reading gains strength by being standard English, while the intended reading is acceptable headlinese but not standard English. In standard English, we would have to talk about ‘Cardinal Pell’s charges’ (that is, the charges against him, not belonging to him).

Either way, the ambiguity continues because charge has multiple meanings both as a noun and a verb.

(Note: I am not commenting on the justice or injustice of the charges, or on His Eminence’s innocence or guilt. I am commenting on the linguistic ambiguity of the headline.)

prepositional phrases: order and attachment

Prepositional phrases often provide information about where or when, or about conceptual relationships. Two problems often arise: the order when multiple prepositional phrases are used together, and deciding which other element(s) in the sentence this/these prepositional phrase(s) modify/ies.

Regarding the first, a student wrote:

‘I with my friends went to a steak restaurant at my birthday in [country]’.

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24 years old v 24 years older

Last night my wife pointed to a Youtube video about the new president of France, Emmanuel Macron, and asked ‘Did you know he married a woman 24 years old?’. I’d read headlines about ‘an older woman’, so ’24 years old’ didn’t sound right, but ’24 years older‘ didn’t sound much righter. Except she is. My wife really did know that Brigette Macron is ‘older’ and really did mean to say ‘older’, but either her pronunciation failed at the last syllable or I wasn’t paying attention.

It is perhaps more likely that a 39-year-old man would marry a woman 24 years old than a woman 24 years older. Thinking about it, I was grateful that she isn’t, for example, 15 years older than him. ‘Did you know he married a woman 15 years old?’ really doesn’t sound right.

Some time ago, she was reading about a host/judge on a cooking competition program here in Australia. She said ‘His wife is 19 years old!’ (he was then in his 40s). This is possible, but I wanted to check. The article said ‘his wife of 19 years’. (I remember, many, many years ago, being confused about this phrasing as well. It that case, it was something like ‘his wife of 13 years’.)

lookout v look out, wildlife v wild life

We drove to a small town in the Blue Mountains famous for its autumn leaves. On the way, I saw a sign which might have said:




which makes sense in the Blue Mountains. The second one definitely said:




Just as we were leaving the small town, I saw a sign saying:


I guess to those living in a quiet mountain town, everything else seems wild.

time and place

Almost every English sentence has a ‘time’ and a ‘place’, which are sometimes explicitly stated and sometimes only implied. One question in the textbook was (something like) ‘I ___ (work) at 7 o’clock this evening. I work till 8 on Thursdays.’ The first question to be mentally answered is ‘What day is it today-in-this-sentence?’. Some students said ‘Wednesday’ (because it really was), but my interpretation is that ‘today-in-this-sentence’ is Thursday, because if it was any other day, then the information about Thursday would violate Grice’s maxim of relevance. If it is Thursday, then the answer is ‘I will be working at 7 o’clock’. If it is any other day, then it’s ‘I won’t be working’ (but textbooks and tests usually supply ‘not’ if a negative statement is needed).

Another question was ‘You can’t / may have seen Gary here yesterday. He took the day off.’ The question is ‘Where is “here”?. If ‘here’ is ‘the office’, then you can’t have seen him here yesterday. If ‘here’ is ‘his favourite pub’, then you may have. (Or you might have.)

I live, therefore I buy

A few months ago I downloaded a mobile phone app for studying Korean. The app shows a sentence, question or phrase in Korean, with the option of hearing it. (I generally use this on the train, which means I turn the sound down.) The user mentally or audibly translates it into English, then clicks ‘Show answer’. After checking the answer and any notes the app programmer has provided the user then can then select a period of time after which the sentence will re-appear.

Last night I read the question 어디에서 삽니까? (eo-di-e-seo sam-ni-kka?). 사 is most immediately the root of the verb 사다 (sa–da, to buy), making 어디에서 삽니까? the formal polite question ‘Where do you buy (it)?’ (The ㅂ is part of the verb inflection.) But the answer given was ‘Where do you live?’. ‘Live’ is 살다 (sal-da). Most inflections of 사다 and 살다  are distinct. For example, the standard polite statement form of 사다 is 사요 (sa-yo, I buy) and that of 살다 is 살아요 (sal-a-yo > sa-la-yo, I live). Just occasionally, though, the ㄹ of  살다 disappears, leaving 사. One of these circumstances is when it is followed by ㅂ (usually /b/ but in this case /m/ because is it followed by ㄴ /n/). This is approximately analogous to the silent ‘l’ in ‘calm’ etc. In English, the sound disappears but the spelling remains. In Korean, the sound and the spelling both disappear.

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