Natural languages necessarily have certain inherent ambiguity. If there were a natural language without inherent ambiguity, then one could have easily adopted such a natural language and used it as a programming language, which would have obviated the need for having to invent a programming language and learning it -- at least for those people who speak the ambiguity-free language. But I've never heard that any ethnic group used their own natural language as a programming language. Which proves the proposition set forth at the outset of this paragraph.

Specifically, I'd like to focus on inherent syntactic ambiguity in natural languages. I was wondering if there is a grammar of syntax that embraces this inherent syntactic ambiguity as an integral part of the grammar. Two most famous grammars that I know of are Constituency Grammar and Dependency Grammar. As far as I know, however, neither of these grammars systematically describes inherent syntactic ambiguity in a natural language.

For example, in "I have a bad feeling about this", "about this" can be viewed as a complement of either "have" or "feeling". Semantically, it doesn't really matter how it is viewed. But syntactically it has to be determined either way. Otherwise, you wouldn't even be able to draw a definite tree diagram out of this sentence, whether according to Constituency Grammar or Dependency Grammar.

Now, I'm no linguist, so I'm not aware of how either of these grammars deals with such syntactic ambiguity or indeterminacy, or even whether either actually does deal with it. So, anyone well aware of these grammars could enlighten me on the 'how' and/or the 'whether' question(s).

If neither deals with such syntactic ambiguity, is there any new approach out there that embraces such syntactic ambiguity and allows you to draw a single tree diagram out of a sentence having syntactic ambiguity?


I feel the need to clarify what I mean by "inherent syntactic ambiguity".

By "inherent syntactic ambiguity" I mean the kind of ambiguity that has a single unambiguous interpretation in terms of semantics and pragmatics that still has ambiguity in terms of syntax.

Thus, a sentence with "inherent syntactic ambiguity" necessarily leads to two or more different tree diagrams under either Constituency or Dependency scheme.

Also, such ambiguity is "inherent" in the sense that no additional context could possibly disambiguate the syntactic ambiguity, as shown in the above "I have a bad feeling about this" example.

  • I would say that an ambiguity was dealt with by a grammar if the grammar assigns two structural descriptions, each corresponding to one sense of the ambiguous example. Is that what you mean by "deal with"? If so, then yes, all the popular syntactic theories deal with ambiguity.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 21, 2016 at 20:12
  • No, that's not what I mean. I was asking if, in a Constituency or Dependency tree diagram, there's a way to make note of this syntactic ambiguity within a "single" tree diagram. And if there no such way in either CG or DG, then if there's a variant thereof or even a new type of tree diagramming scheme that enables the marking of this type of ambiguity in a "single" diagram.
    – JK2
    Jan 21, 2016 at 23:57
  • If you want a single tree diagram describing all of a small number of senses, that's no problem. Make a tree with a node "all senses" at the top and one daughter node for each sense dangling down from it. So, there you go.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 22, 2016 at 2:23
  • So, if you have two different diagrams for a single semnatic/pragramtic sense, you can show the entire two trees side by side with a mother node on top of both the two trees, the mother node having these two trees as daughter nodes. Right? Is this an established way of showing this type of syntactic ambiguity in conventional CG and/or DG? Or is this something you just came up off the top of your head? :)
    – JK2
    Jan 22, 2016 at 2:33
  • Is it an established way of showing this type of ambiguity? No, because it's trivial, And that's your problem. You're asking for a diagram; but making diagrams is just a matter of ingenuity. You have to try to get beyond the diagrammatic to get to to the theoretical.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 22, 2016 at 3:38

1 Answer 1


Yes, cognitive and construction grammars do take ambiguity into account. However, they have to give up a lot of the formal properties of traditional constituency and dependency grammars.

It resolves the particular ambiguities you mention by not having a notion of things like constituents, dependents or complements. It simply treats all surface constructions as units that can be blended together and it is that blending that resolves ambiguities.

So if I say, 'She hit the man with a bottle.' I have certain presuppositional knowledge as well as context to disambiguate (all part of the blend). This means that the context sets up certain mental spaces that will disambiguate this:

  • She was bothered by a man in a bar. So she hit the man with a bottle.
  • Two men were approaching threateningly each holding a potential blunt instrument. The one holding a plate looked less dangerous. So she hit the man with a bottle.

There is no notion of semantics vs. pragmatics.

Now, this does not solve the problems of something like machine translation where you still have to find a way of 'understanding' the context. But you can build a semantic model, that makes this approach perfectly plausible. However, it won't look very much like the sort of formal grammars you have in mind.

(By the way, constituency and dependency are not 'grammars' per se but rather approaches to syntax. They each cover many 'grammars' that use specific notation and make specific assumptions.)

It is also worth pointing out that conversation analysis has identified a number of patterns in language used to disambiguate - so called conversation repair. Ultimately, context is not always enough. So you may get something like:

  • Hold on, she hit the guy holding a bottle, or she took a bottle and hit a guy with it?
  • + for introducing me to cognitive/construction grammars. I have briefly looked at both in Wikipedia. Doesn't either of the grammars use a tree diagram or a variant thereof? Also, please read my EDIT where I tried to clarify what I mean by 'inherent syntactic ambiguity', and if possible please edit your answer accordingly. Thanks.
    – JK2
    Jan 22, 2016 at 0:49
  • I see what you mean. Again, construction grammars do not have to deal with that sort of ambiguity because they don't use any formal structures for syntax - therefore it does not arise. In many ways, the different 'grammars' out there can all exist because they take one way of resolving some of these ambiguities and build a formalism around it. (Of course, they are left with others.) So basically, because of the axioms and rules within a particular framework, the ambiguity is mostly not there. Jan 22, 2016 at 7:10
  • I am not sure in what whey it holds to say they do not deal with ambiguity... Do you mean that they embrace ambiguity rather than trying to decide it, or do you mean something very different?
    – matanox
    Nov 4, 2017 at 12:03
  • Any reference to what might be an interesting, well exemplified, and not abandoned construction grammar formalism out there?
    – matanox
    Nov 4, 2017 at 12:07

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.