Sunday, January 18, 2004

Foundering on a syntactic puzzle

Thanks, Glen, for the introduction. And now, I'll get right to some linguistic stuff.

In a recent post on LanguageLog, Geoff Pullum spoke of “founder[ing] on [a] semantic puzzle”. I’ve known this feeling when it comes to syntax, and particularly in song lyrics. I’ve always had a tendency (which I’ve gradually learned is not a normal one) to take things literally, and end up chuckling over lines like this one:

(1) Your prison is walking through this world all alone. (“Desperado,” by the Eagles)

But one song lyric in particular had me foundering on a syntactic puzzle. Back in high school, I’d hear this line from the Police on the radio:

(2) I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day… (“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”)

And I’d wonder: Which is it? Does he make a resolution a thousand times a day? Or does he make one resolution, namely, that he will call her up a thousand times a day? Well, gosh, she’d get pretty annoyed if he called a thousand times a day, so it’s probably the resolving that he does a thousand times a day. Yeah, that’s probably it. But even after making my determination, the next time I’d hear the song, I’d go through the train of thought all over again. It was weeks before I was able to hear how the rest of the verse went, because about 5 seconds would always have elapsed before I turned my attention back to the song. (It goes, “ask her if she’ll marry me,” something something something). Much later I learned that there was a name for this kind of situation: an attachment ambiguity. Does “a thousand times a day” attach to the lower verb phrase “call her up”, or to the larger verb phrase “resolve to call her up”?

BTW, for those who think the “call her up a thousand times” scenario is so outlandish that no one could possibly think that was what Sting meant, that was exactly what my sister thought he meant until I opened her eyes to the more likely meaning!


Randomking said...

Well I know Im 3 years late to reply and I dont know if anyone will ever read this... But OF COURSE he means he resolves a thousand times a day. Thats what the whole ending of the song is about... his indecisiveness. Thats also why the break after "I resolve to call her up" then allows "a thousand times a day" to apply to that ENTIRE phrase anyway. And yeah, Id be pretty pissed if someone called me a thousand times a day too.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm even later, but it's worth noting that the next lines contain a similar syntactic puzzle:

"And ask her if she'll marry me
In some old-fashioned way."

Now, does that mean Sting wants an old-fashioned wedding, or that his proposal will be phrased in Olde English ("Prithee, dearest heart...")

Anonymous said...

Grant: Good points, but 1) the pause could still allow the unintended reading; and 2) it didn't matter that I'd figured it out; I'd still get stuck on that line the next time.

BDS: Hey, you're right: in some old-fashioned way could attach low, to marry me, or high, to the entire ask her... phrase. For that matter, it could attach even higher, to call..., so that he's resolving that he will call in an old-fashioned way (perhaps in person, with a calling card) to ask if she'll marry him. Or it could attach to the highest verb of all, resolve, such that he resolves X in an old-fashioned way (perhaps by uttering, "Be it resolved"), where X = call her up 1000x/day and ask if she'll marry him, with all the ambiguities for X already noted. This multiplication of ambiguities into parses that even the ambiguity-aware don't think of has historically been one of the problems of machine translation.

For more fun with ambiguous song lyrics, check out the tab with that name on my "Literal-Minded" blog, on Glen's blogroll.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I feel like a walkin' talkin' idiot. I would have sworn that Sting meant to call the girl every 86.4 seconds and ask, "will you marry me in some old fashion way?" It never occurred to me that there might be another meaning here. Perhaps this is why I always had such rotten luck with girls in high school.