Saturday, April 29, 2006

Varieties of ambiguity

What kinds of ambiguity are there? Offhand, there seems to be syntactci, semantic, pragmatic, and phonological ambiguity. Syntactic ambiguity is the standard kind of structural ambiguity. 'I saw the man with the telescope' is ambiguous between 'with the telescope' modifying 'the man' and 'saw'. The underlying structure of the sentence is ambiguous between two or more different structural trees. Semantic ambiguity seems to be limited to scope ambiguities between operators and quantifiers. I'm not sure if there is any other kind of semantic ambiguity. Pragmatic ambiguity is a little less clear. We might say that it happens when we aren't sure which object is the one being pointed at or which is the referent of a name. This might be semantic though. Another kind of pragmatic ambiguity is one that John Perry pointed out. An agent might not be sure where to stop a chain of Gricean reasoning or it may be unclear which maxim to being the reasoning with. An example of the prior is this. If we begin with 'he is coming right for you', the agent might want to reason all the way to 'X is coming for Y' where X=referent of 'he' and Y=referent of 'you'. Or, the agent might want to stop once X is identified. There may not be any reason to go all the way to full propositional content. It might make more sense to stop before that. Phonological ambiguity might not be a real class of ambiguity. The idea is that an utterance must first be disambiguated into its proper word breakdown. For example, the spoken form of 'That boy spat' might be mistakenly understood as 'That boy's Pat'. Determing which sentence has actually been uttered will have consequences which spill over into the other three categories mentioned. This makes it sound pretty imiportant. I'm not convinced that it is a distinct class of phenomena over and above the others.

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