Fun With Linguistics!

August 13, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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When I read an article in the New York Times yesterday about a new helmet model for Major League Baseball, this sentence immediately jumped out at me, because it reminded me so much of the kind of assignments we used to have in syntax class when I was majoring in Linguistics:

“ ‘I want a helmet that’s comfortable,’ Athletics infielder Nomar Garciaparra said, ‘and that doesn’t look bad.’ ”

This sentence demonstrates strucutral ambiguity, for the use of the word “that” creates confusion in Garciaparra’s utterance, giving it two possible meanings that are entirely opposite. The first possibility has “that” functioning as a demonstrative pronoun (“that helmet” shortened to just “that,” accompanied by a pointing finger, for example), which would render the sentence as: “I want a helmet that’s comfortable, and that [helmet] doesn’t look bad.” If this was the case, the meaning of the utterance would be a positive reaction to the new model: “I want a helmet that’s comfortable, and this new model doesn’t look too bad at all!” By contrast, the second possibility is has “that” functioning as a complementizer, which is how the first “that” in the sentence is used, thus creating a parallel construction, and rendering the sentence as: “I want a helmet that’s comfortable, and [one] that doesn’t look bad.” If this is the case—and after reading this sentence a few times, I think it is, in fact, Garciaparra’s intended meaning—the utterance is actually an implied negative reaction to the the new model: “I want a helmet that’s comfortable, and one that doesn’t look bad; this new model is neither of those things!” 

It is only through evaluating the context of the quote and its placement in the article that the reader is able to figure out how Garciaparra really feels about the new helmet model. This isn’t the fault of the journalist, for he’s merely directly quoting baseball players, but it is frustrating for such a simple utterance to be complicated by a word as negligible as “that”!



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