Syntactic ambiguity in the courts

Some aspects of court cases are about facts: who did, or didn't, do what. But often the issues are linguistic: the interpretation of words and phrases in a law or a contract or an advertisement or a piece of testimony, and the application of that interpretation to the case in question. The focus of our lecture on Language and the Law will be some basic philosophical disagreements about how to resolve textual ambiguities of whatever kind.

Such arguments can be about the meanings of words or short phrases, in general or in relation to particular linguistic and factual contexts. Is a fish a "tangible object"? Does someone who trades a gun for cocaine use a firearm in the commission of a drug trafficking crime"? In other cases, the initial locus of ambiguity is how the words are put together, i.e. their syntax. Is "100% grated parmesan cheese" a hundred percent cheese, or just a hundred percent grated?

Whatever the nature of the ambiguity, the argument always brings in levels of analysis that linguists would call semantics (the relation of words to the world) or pragmatics (the use of words to communicate). Today we'll look at a few examples, starting with the cheese case, where the initial source of ambiguity is syntactic.

As background, remember that sometimes changing the syntax doesn't change the meaning of a phrase:

((1 + 2) + 3) = 6
(1 + (2 + 3)) = 6

But sometimes it does:

((1 + 2) * 3) = 9
(1 + (2 * 3)) = 7

In the phrase grated pamesan cheese, it doesn't seem to matter whether we interpret it as parmesan cheese that's grated, or cheese of the type "grated parmesan":

[grated [parmesan cheese ]]
[[grated parmesan] cheese]

And sometimes, even if the structure makes a difference, it's hard to figure out what the writer or speaker meant. If a friend gives us a shopping list that includes "organic strawberry jam", do they mean jam made from organic strawberries, along with other ingredients that may or may not be legally or technically organic? Or do they want strawberry jam in which all the ingredients are organic? We'll probably guess that it's the second, but the English phrase alone doesn't answer the question -- a "wild horse corral" is probably a corral for wild horses, not a horse corral that's wild.

Because the distinctions sometimes don't matter, and sometimes are difficult when they do, many treebanks don't try to assign structure to stacks of pre-nominal modifiers in English. Thus

stands for both

and also

In the last case, "one hundred percent" should be considered an adverbial rather than an adjectival phase -- but we're focusing here on what modifies what, not what the category labels should be. In the previously-referenced court case, the court decided that it's OK for a product labelled "100% grated parmesan cheese" to contain 8.8% cellulose from wood pulp, in part because the wood pulp is, after all, also 100% grated.

(We should note here that n-ary constituents can be syntactically and semantically well defined, not just analytically convenient -- which makes the theoretical and descriptive problems more complex.)

Other relevant examples of legally relevant syntactic ambiguity can be found in Chapter 12 of Ken Adam's A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. One especially simple example: Does

Acme may sell in the Stores only children’s apparel, accessories, and footwear.

mean (in Ken's suggested re-wordings)

Acme may sell in the Stores only (1) children’s apparel, (2) accessories, and (3) footwear.

or rather

Acme may sell in the Stores only children’s apparel, children’s accessories, and children’s footwear.

A simplified version of the constituent-structure difference might be something like this:

(Note that there are types of syntactic ambiguity that don't hinge on differences in constituency (or dependency) relations, but rather on the syntactic categories of the tokens involved in the relations: a classical example is Flying planes can be dangerous.)