Arising from discussion against “Against traffic” or “Against the traffic” on ELU, I wonder if anyone can give an authoritative opinion and/or supporting evidence for the proposition that Americans tend to interpret ambiguous embedded clauses within "compound verb phrases" differently to Brits.

The specific example under consideration in that question had

  • ...[a vehicle] driving against the traffic towards London...

i.e. - driving against {the traffic towards London} or driving {against the traffic} {towards London}

I assume that if you know already which direction the vehicle itself is heading, the "correct" interpretation will be transparently inferred on either side of the Atlantic without the ambiguity even being particularly noticed. But my question is whether there's any evidence to suggest a UK/US difference in interpretation in the absence of disambiguating information, and/or a tendency to avoid using the ambiguous construction at all.

Apologies to anyone who thinks this should have been asked on ELU. I think it belongs here - but it's not really my call, so please just migrate it if I'm out of order.

  • Actually, I think this is a very good question and perfectly on topic here! Feb 16, 2012 at 16:07

3 Answers 3


In speech, of course, rhythm and intonation would probably make it clear what the speaker meant. In print, it's flat-out ambiguous, and I don't see any US/UK differences from the US side. I tend to doubt claims about Pondal and other dialect differences that aren't made by sociolinguists with data in hand. Many people assume that any difference from what they expect in speech or writing must be a dialectal difference, though most such are simply individual preferences and habits.

  • This certainly accords with my preconceptions. I have a (half-baked, unsubstantiated) theory that British English is more "homogeneous" than American - based largely on the idea that BBC TV/radio is relatively consistent and most of us are familiar with it, whereas I don't think there's really an equivalent in the US. Also a (barely lukewarm, let alone quarter-baked) theory that Americans slightly prefer simpler terminology and phrasing to mitigate the problems faced by their higher percentage of "non-fluent" speakers, but I doubt that applies here even if it's credible in the first place. Feb 16, 2012 at 16:03
  • 1
    Oh, Britain has more dialect variation in any hundred mile square than you'll find in all of North America. People have simply been speaking English there for a long time. Most US variation is on the East Coast, for obvious reasons, and now it's class, race, and education rather than geography that distinguishes speech variation here for the most part.
    – jlawler
    Feb 16, 2012 at 17:09
  • Yes, I'm more than prepared to believe that. I didn't express myself well - what I meant was I think on average Brits have a clearer concept of the shared Queen's English / BBC English / RP, and they tend to know when they're using or hearing regional variations. Or indeed variations based on any of the other factors you mentioned. Feb 16, 2012 at 17:43

This is a case of PP attachment problem, the classic example for which is

I see the man with a telescope.

Am I using a telescope and seeing the man through it, or am I seeing a man who is using a telescope?

I would venture a guess here that this phenomenon is ambiguous in any language, regardless of national variety.

  • Ah, right! 60 second's Googling shows it's certainly an issue with many languages, not just English. Another 60 seconds gives no indication that including things like american, british, "less/more common/prevalent" lead to any recognised difference across anglophonic linguistic communities. As jlawler says, probably some people just assume all cisatlantic countrymen share their understanding, and anyone who doesn't must be a Limey/Yank. Feb 16, 2012 at 16:20
  • Attachment ambiguities are certainly common in right-branching languages, but attachment works rather differently for left-branching languages.
    – jlawler
    Feb 16, 2012 at 17:06
  • This is not ambigious in Russian, definitely. We do not use "with" for using a telescope, we use "in", but the ambiguity still could remain (I see the man through telescope or inside a telescope). The ambiguity is resolved via case endings (through telescope uses accusative, inside a telescope uses prepositional). Я вижу человека в телескоп = through, Я вижу человека в телескопе = inside.
    – Anixx
    Sep 3, 2014 at 16:49

I have probably turned myself into a machine, but the sentences

I was driving against the traffic towards London.


I was driving, against the traffic, towards London.

mean very different things to me, and each has an unambiguous meaning -- not just in text (with punctuation) but in speech too (with intonation).

I have pasted a couple of graphs below. To make these, I fed the sentences to the Stanford Parser and used my own software to generate the graphs. But you can verify it for yourself at the Stanford Parser's demo website.

I was driving against the traffic towards London. I was driving, against the traffic, towards London.

Despite the fact that most parsers (and I :-D) tend to treat these in a manner identical to the Stanford Parser, I do not claim that most speakers of English would see this difference between these sentences.

@FumbleFingers: I don't know about a UK/US difference in this case, but having done classes in linguistics with a few classmates from the US, I have come to the opinion that in matters of subtle interpretation, not all people from the same region tend to have the same opinions. How do you interpret the first sentence? How do you interpret it in speech? Do your RL friends from your region interpret it your way too?

  • Well, I'd hardly say this is a subtle difference. Either the traffic being driven against is travelling to or from London! Which makes quite a bit of difference from the point of view of any other traffic on the same carriageway. I have to say I think that most drivers, and most speakers of English would see this difference between these sentences. I don't like to seem dismissive, but what do all these charts add to the single line headed "i.e." in the question text? And who are my "RL" friends? Feb 17, 2012 at 23:41
  • @FumbleFingers: "RL"=Real Life, as opposed to "online". What do these particular graphs add? Well, they show how current parsers deal with such sentences -- the in practice aspect, as opposed to the in theory aspect. A sentence can have subtle differences grammatically, despite drastically different meanings. In this case, the subtlety has to do with where exactly the PP is attached, which is what prompted your question.
    – prash
    Feb 18, 2012 at 0:16
  • C'mon, prash, I speak English, and have done all my life! I don't need a piece of clunky software to explain the two different interpretations of my example! I'm well aware that algorithm-based software has problems with far simpler constructions than my example - where human being wouldn't even notice any ambiguity (because we know so much more about "RL", as you put it). I understand you're coming at this from the "computational linguistics" perspective, and I don't deny this is an important field. But it's a comment, not an answer to my question about possible US/UK difference. Feb 18, 2012 at 0:33
  • I was not trying to explain the difference using software. But...! I mentioned what I was not trying to do ("Despite... I do not claim that..."). I now make it explicit that I have not come across studies that talk of a US/UK difference in PP attachments. I gave you my background for emphasizing on personal differences rather than on regional differences: this became apparent in linguistics classes... when we were all discussing linguistics. Apart from that, I wrote how I would write your 2nd interpretation. If/when I get convinced that my answer was just a comment, I'll delete it. ;-)
    – prash
    Feb 18, 2012 at 1:25
  • Fair enough. I accept I've already been more outspoken than was reasonable, but I don't retract the substance of what I said. We'll just leave it to others to vote as they see fit. Feb 18, 2012 at 1:49

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