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In linguistics textbooks, whenever ambiguity is discussed, those ambiguous sentences are grammatical on both readings. However, recently, a few native speakers of English say that a particular ungrammatical sentence is ambiguous. Does their understanding conform to how linguists understand sentential ambiguity?

They were talking about the following sentence:

This animal has paws like a bear.

They say the sentence is ambiguous in that it could mean either the animal has paws like those of a bear, or the animal has paws, as bears do. But they also say the sentence is ungrammatical on the first reading, and should have had "a bear's" instead of "a bear."

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    To my mind, meaning is entailed by grammaticality, so an ungrammatical sentence is by definition not ambiguous, since it has 0 meanings. But my model could be off. Oct 19, 2021 at 14:28
  • I share your understanding. By the way, are you a native speaker of English? Could English speakers have some special understanding of ambiguity? Or do the native speakers who interacted with me just reflect laymen's understanding?
    – Apollyon
    Oct 19, 2021 at 14:31
  • I'm a native-ish speaker of English. I don't think your question is at all specific to English though. And I don't know who you were talking to. They could have been laymen or specialists. Your question could be improved by including the sentence you and they were talking about. Oct 19, 2021 at 14:41
  • I have edited my question. Please take a look.
    – Apollyon
    Oct 19, 2021 at 14:56

1 Answer 1

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As a native speaker, I reject the claim that the string plus reading "like those of a bear" is ungrammatical: the string is well-formed and it has both readings. But it is well established over more than a half a century of post-Aspects linguistics that "grammatical" and "ambiguous" don't mean the same thing to everybody.

The main culprit is "grammatical". The term is generally used in the context of generative grammar, which makes a distinction between competence and performance, where "is generated by the grammar" is the generative meaning of "grammatical". Under that interpretation of "grammatical" depends on knowing what the rules of the grammar are, and determining whether an output is generated by the grammar. But there are more than 30 million theories of grammar, and it is not self-evident what the correct, actual rules are. Since nobody knows for certain what the rules of English grammar are, instead they substitute a performance test, namely "acceptability", on the premise that the correct rules should produce all and only the acceptable outputs. However, that turns out to be wishful thinking (see the preceding 55 years of research in syntax).

The standard view of ambiguity is that there are strings generated by the syntax that map to more than one semantic interpretation, e.g. "Old men and women are half-price on Tuesdays" is at least 2 ways ambiguous (scope of "old"). If the syntax generates the string, and the string has two interpretations, then the sentence is grammatical on both readings. If a syntactically well-formed string has only one semantic interpretation, then it is (a) grammatical and (b) unambiguous. But if a string is syntactically ill-formed, then it has no interpretation.

I suspect that the people making this claim are operating in a completely different theory of "grammar" and "meaning". Probably, the reading "those of a bear" is "ungrammatical" in a normative / prescriptive sense, so the sentence is unambiguous, and the confusion comes from mixing prescriptive judgments. If you take the "those of a bear" interpretation to necessarily derive from reduction of "a bear's paws", you would predict "paws like a bear's" has to be the output. Thus the belief could follow from a particular theory of how the string is generated.

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  • This is irrelevant to your core message, but what does "Old men and women are half-price on Tuesdays" mean? Could people be described as being half-price?
    – Apollyon
    Oct 20, 2021 at 4:35
  • Yes, it's 4 ways ambiguous, with 2 of the readings being socially improbable.
    – user6726
    Oct 20, 2021 at 4:36
  • What is the socially probable meaning of "half-price" as used of people?
    – Apollyon
    Oct 20, 2021 at 4:44
  • They can enter for half the price, that is "entrance for such people is half-price", as opposed to the people themselves being half-price.
    – user6726
    Oct 20, 2021 at 4:46

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