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“Dysambiguation”: Mistaken Disambiguation

Disambiguation means taking an ambiguous sentence and removing the ambiguity. For example, “I like chocolate more than you” is ambiguous. You could disambiguate it to either “I like chocolate more than you do” or “I like chocolate more than I like you.”

I am coining the term “dysambiguation” to mean disambiguating the wrong way. Suppose an author wrote “I like chocolate more than you”, meaning “…more than you do”, and didn’t notice that it was ambiguous. Then suppose an editor noticed the ambiguity and decided to “fix” it by changing the sentence to say “I like chocolate more than I like you.”

Dysambiguation can be perpetrated by human editors who aren’t paying attention, or by grammar-checking software.

Here are some examples I found in the wild.

 

“The results indicate that parents showed more involvement with female students than male students did.”

This comes from a study about parental involvement with students’ education.  It is very like my contrived “chocolate” example. Presumably it originally said “parents showed more involvement with female students than male students”, and someone correctly noticed that it was ambiguous, but they then disambiguated it the wrong way.

(It was clear from the context, data tables, graphs, etc that it was actually about the involvement of parents with students of both genders, not about the involvement of male students with female students.)

 

“The students measured the purity of their crystals, obtained from the previous experiment using chromatography.”

Presumably there was originally no comma, and someone noticed it was ambiguous, but disambiguated it the wrong way.

The two possible readings of the sentence without any comma are 1) that the purity was measured using chromatography and 2) that the crystals were obtained from the previous experiment using chromatography. You can make it say meaning 1 unambiguously by putting in two commas (“The students measured the purity of their crystals, obtained from the previous experiment, using chromatography”) and you can make it say meaning 2 unambiguously by putting in a single comma after “crystals”, as in the quote above.

A basic knowledge of chemistry suggests that meaning 1 (purity measured using chromatography) is much more likely than meaning 2 (crystals obtained using chromatography). It might have been a computer program, or a human editor without a basic knowledge of chemistry, that put in the single comma.

 

“Only talk to real life friends or family if they are on sites with a social media element like Moshi Monsters or Club Penguin.”

This was from an e-safety leaflet my kids’ school sent home. It was produced by an official national organisation.

I expect the sentence originally said “Only talk to real life friends or family on sites with a social media element…” This is ambiguous between the meanings of “On social media sites, don’t talk to anyone except real-life friends and family” (clearly the intended meaning) and “Don’t talk to friends and family unless they’re on social media sites”.

Either a grammar-checking program or a really clueless human editor managed to spot the ambiguity but resolve it the wrong way, by adding “if they are”, making the leaflet apparently forbid children from talking to their grandparents who aren’t on social media!

 

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