, Research Paper
Factors Influencing Interpretation of Humorous Ambiguities
What makes something humorous? Often, humor is found through peculiarities of language. One such peculiarity is the different definitions that are related to the same word. When the correct choice of these definitions is unclear it results in an ambiguity.
In the 1970’s David Swinney did a study involving cross-modal priming. This research supported the idea that all meanings of ambiguous words are activated regardless of the context. To decide which interpretation is the correct one we generally use five factors; frequency, prosody, context, syntax, and plausibility.
Frequency is the rate of occurrence of a particular meaning of a word or phrase in everyday language. Generally, when we see an ambiguous word we immediately consider its most frequent definition. Prosody, the rhythm and intonation of a word or phrase refers to verbal language, and therefore will not be considered further in our analysis.
Context is the words around the ambiguous phrase that provide clues to meaning. Syntax refers the way the words are put together structurally, and also gives clues to the meaning of ambiguous words. Plausibility refers to the realistic possibility of the word or phrase, in other words the logic of the phrase.
We use these factors in different degrees depending on the word or phrase we are trying to understand. In some cases these factors do not lead to the same conclusion for everyone, frequency, for example, may be different depending on experience. Generally however, plausibility provides a clear support for one interpretation of an ambiguity over another. To understand further these factors, let us take a look at several examples of actual newspaper headlines considered humorous.
“Eye Drops off Shelf” in this example the ambiguity is whether “eye” or “eye drops” is the subject of the sentence. If it is “eye” then the sentence is interpreted as an anatomical object falling off a shelf. However, if the subject is “eye drops” than we learn that a product has been removed from the shelf.
The anatomical interpretation is suggested by the frequency of the two choices. We are more often exposed to the word “eye” on it’s own then “eye drops”. Most learn the anatomical reference to “eye” as very young children. However, the phrase “eye drops” doesn’t even enter our vocabulary until much later. Therefore, it is much more reasonable that “eye” by itself is the more frequent occurrence.
We are most likely to adopt the second interpretation led by plausibility. The product being taken off the shelf is much more plausible, it is easy to imagine a product being recalled due to safety reasons etc. However, it is incredibly unlikely that a piece of a person’s anatomy would fall off the shelf.
The context of the phrase also leads us to adopt the second interpretation. The use of the word “drops” rather than “falls” or even “rolls” also leads us to take the second interpretation. Semantic priming studies have suggested that we access one particular definition of a word more readily if a related word is shown first, therefore it is likely that we would access the liquid definition of drops after hearing “eye”.
“All-Stars turn on sparse crowd” The ambiguity in this example is based on whether “turn” or “turn on” is the action being taken. In the first case the headline is taken to mean that the all-stars in question turned against the crowd. In the second case the all-stars are understood to excite the crowd.
Both context and plausibility support the second interpretation. The context in which a group of humans is taking the action indicates that it is unlikely that the attack interpretation of “turn” is the right one. However, if the context were different; for example “Lions turn on sparse crowd” this interpretation would be much more likely.
Plausibility, closely linked with context in this case, also leads us towards the excitement interpretation. It is much more realistic to think of athletes exciting the crowd than attacking them. Therefore, these factors help us to determine in which way a lexical ambiguity should be interpreted.
“Red Tape Holds Up Bridge” The ambiguity in this example is whether “holds up” is meant as physically supporting the bridge or as hindering the progress of building the bridge. The interpretation in which the bridge is physically held up is supported by taking the frequency factor into consideration. We more often hear of things being held up in the physical sense, such holding up a sign, or holding our heads up. Therefore, it is understandable that one may arrive at the physical interpretation.
The other interpretation, in which the progress of the bridge is being “held up” is supported by three closely related factors: context, syntax, and plausibility. The context and syntax are important for the interpretation because “holds up” refers to a bridge. If the statement had instead been “Red Tape Holds Up Decorations” then those two factors would support the physical interpretation. However, the word bridge leads us to consider our interpretation in terms of plausibility.
Plausibility also supports the second interpretation, in which the progress of the bridge is being “held up”. This is much more reasonable an interpretation. Even a child, unfamiliar with the metaphor of red tape, would understand that a bridge could not be supported by tape. Therefore this allows us to correctly interpret the ambiguous sentence.
“Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half” This example is ambiguous because it is unclear whether the dropouts are being physically cut in half or if the rate of dropouts is being cut numerically. The first interpretation is supported both by syntax and frequency.
First, we most often think of cutting in the physical sense. When we refer to numbers it is often in terms such as reduced, or decreased, much less often do we use the term cut. Therefore, this leads us to accept the first interpretation. Second, syntax also leans towards the first interpretation. From the included information we are only able to assume that the dropouts themselves are the subjects, the object of the cutting. Since the word “rate” or the phrase “number of” is not a part of the statement we are inclined to accept the interpretation involving physical cutting.
On the other hand, both context and plausibility support the interpretation that the number or rate of dropouts is being cut. Due to the context, namely that any theoretical cutting refers to people, we are led to adopt the second interpretation. This is closely related to our final consideration, plausibility. It is only realistic that the cutting refers to the numbers and not to the dropouts themselves. Therefore, we conclude to accept the numerical interpretation.
“Iraqi Head Seeks Arms” This example is ambiguous because it is unclear whether “head” and “arms” refer to the anatomical units, or whether they refer to the head of state and arms meaning weapons. The first interpretation is supported by frequency. The terms “head” and “arms’ are usually used in conjunction with the body. Therefore, it is understandable that one may at first draw this conclusion.
However, context and plausibility allow us to choose the correct interpretation, the one pertaining to national leadership and weapons. The context of the phrase, specifically the modifier “Iraqi”, leads towards this reading. The modifier provides a clue to the real meaning of “head” by prompting us to consider the administrative connotation of “head”.
Finally, plausibility leads us to choose the second interpretation. We know that it is not realistic for it to be a anatomical head wandering around looking for arms. Therefore we turn to the other definition, again aided by the context, to the plausible definition of a national leader looking for weapons.
“Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant” This phrase is ambiguous because it is unclear whether “shooting” is an action or a modifier, and whether “try” is meant as to attempt or to put on trial. If “shooting” is taken as a verb we are led to believe that the court is going to attempt to physically harm the defendant by shooting him or her. However, if “shooting” is a modifier, and “try” meant in the legal sense then we understand that the court is going to render a verdict in regards to a person accused of a shooting.
The first interpretation is supported by frequency. “Try” meaning “to attempt” is much more common to most people than the legal connotation. If that is the interpretation of “try” then the phrase must have another verb to represent what is being attempted, therefore “shooting” is taken as an action, also supporting the first interpretation.
On the other hand, plausibility provides the most support for the legal interpretation. It is implausible, at least in a “civilized” country like the United States that a defendant in a trial would be shot by the courts. Therefore, we are able to discern that the second interpretation is the correct one.
As we have seen in these examples the different factors interact in many different ways to help us understand ambiguity. Often the deciding factor lies not in facets of language itself, but in our knowledge and experience, the plausibility factor. However, our first impressions may be based on other factors indicating an implausible conclusion, this may be found humorous. In this way humor stems from ambiguities in language.
Altmann, Gerry,T.M. The Ascent of Babel: An Exploration of
Language, Mind, and Understanding. Oxford; Oxford University Press. 1997.