Ambiguity Exercise (162)

The need for brevity in newspaper headlines often results in ambiguity. An ambiguous statement is capable of being understood in more than one way. The confusion may arise from word choice, word order, or elliptical expressions in which key words have been left out.

Identify the problems that cause ambiguity in the following sentences.

  • Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

  • Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One

  • Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

  • Teacher Strikes Idle Kids

  • Farmer Bill Dies in House

Answers and Explanations

1. Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years

Correct: word order
The statement could be understood to say that the killer is dying for second time. The ambiguity can be resolved by reversing the two phrases in the headline: For second time in 10 years, killer sentenced to die.

2. Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One

Correct: missing words
The statement could be understood to say that one should share a herpes infection. The meaning is that someone who is infected with herpes should not withhold the information from people they are intimate with. The ambiguity may be resolved by adding words: People infected with herpes should tell partners.

3. Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

Correct: word meaning
The statement could be understood to say a court administered by juveniles is going to experiment with shooting a defendant. "To try" can mean "to attempt" or "to put on trial." The intended sense is that a defendant accused of shooting someone is going to be tried in juvenile court.

4. Teacher Strikes Idle Kids

Correct: word meaning
At first reading, teacher is seen as the subject of a verb, strikes, and kids is seen as the object of strikes, with idle as an adjective describing kids. In fact, strikes is a noun and idle is a verb. Teacher is an attributive noun telling what kind of strikes are going on. The sense is "Strikes by teachers cause students to be without work."

5. Farmer Bill Dies in House

Correct: word meaning
Bill can be a proper noun. The sentence could refer to a farmer named Bill who died at home. Another meaning for bill is "a legislative proposal." In the context of voting, die may be used figuratively to mean "fail to be passed." House in this context refers to a legislative body. The intended sense is that a bill regarding farmers fails to pass the House of Representatives.

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