A Lesson in Ambiguity from the ASHA Leader

Although I like to think of myself as a digital native, or at worst a digital immigrant, when it comes to reading magazines I still prefer the look and feel of the real thing, complete with glossy cover, bendy paper, and long battery life. That’s especially true of the ASHA Leader, which mysteriously downloads itself into my work mailbox each month, begging me to flip through the crisp new pages while sipping coffee and eating a do-nut. Granted my first flip through is to see if the Speech Dudes get mentioned but once my ego has been shattered, I’m happy to relax and catch up on stuff I need to know.

This month’s edition (June 2015) includes a linguistically intriguing headline. Take a look below:

ASHA Leader magazine cover

ASHA Leader June 2015 © ASHA

The title “Helping Clients With Normal Hearing Decline” caught me off guard. Admittedly I was reading it without the help of the earlier mentioned coffee and do-nuts but I wondered why on I was being asked to hasten the decline of individuals who had normal hearing? Is this a subtle way of increasing the demand for Audiologists – taking folks with normal hearing and making it worse? Was there going to be an article inside about recommending folks jack up their iPod volume, stand for hours next to folks working with jack hammers, or attend an entire tour with Ted Nugent? [1]

Happily (unless you’re an audiologist low on clients) the problem was that I had parsed the phrase incorrectly and therefore misinterpreted the meaning. It wasn’t “Help folks who have normal hearing get worse,” where “worse” is a synonym for “decline” but “help people who have declining hearing.”

The ambiguity comes from the phrase “normal hearing decline,” which can be parsed as either ADJ + COMPOUND NOUN or (ADJ + NOUN) + VERB. If the sentence had been something like “Helping Clients with Normal Feet Walk” or “Helping Clients with Big Lips Whistle,” there would have been no ambiguity. “Feet Walk” and “Lips Whistle” are unlikely to be understood as compound nouns but “Hearing Decline”  (like “hearing loss” and “vision impairment”) can be compounds.

In fact, you could probably force my erroneous interpretation if you used PRIMING, a common technique in research that is used to “persuade” people to think in a certain direction. So if I gave you a list as follows and asked you to say what each phrase meant, by the time you got to the last one I suspect you’d be thinking like me:

Helping People with Normal Feet Walk
Helping People with Big Lips Whistle
Helping People with Blue Eyes See
Helping People with Happy Faces Swim
Helping People with Normal Hearing Decline

See? Now you’re wondering about the ethics of making folks get worse!

The phrase is also an example of what’s called a “garden path” sentence, which can be defined as a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect; they are lured into an improper parse that turns out to be wrong [2]. So as you read “Helping Clients with Normal Hearing…” by the time you get there, you’ve already partially parsed the phrase as a subject noun phrase and so expect a verb to follow.

SUBJECT (NP: helping people with normal hearing) + VERB (VP: decline)

Well, that’s clearly how I read it! What garden path sentences serve to illustrate is that we process language in a linear fashion, piece by piece, but revise our understanding where necessary based on new input. This is why we should always let someone finish a sentence before butting in. And in German, because they have a tendency to put many verbs at the END of a sentence, you almost always have to wait to work out what exactly is going on 😉

Now, let me open my Leader again and see if I missed a reference to the Speech Dudes…

[1] For younger readers, before Ted Nugent became a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, advocating that the best way to handle gun violence is to give everyone a gun (or maybe more than one – you can never be too careful) he was a rock star guitarist who promoted his concerts with the phrase “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” It would be unfair to single Ted out as the major cause of premature hearing loss in many of we “oldies” but here’s a random quote trawled from the interwebs from one attendee of a Nugent concert: “I made the mistake of going to a Ted Nugent show once without ear protection. He was opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd, so when he hit the first chord of the night, my ears instantly rang, and didn’t stop for 2 or 3 days.”

[2] Other examples of “garden path” sentences include the following:

“Fat people eat accumulates.”
“The man who hunts ducks out at weekends.’
“I convinced her children are noisy.”
“The old man the boats.”

It’s only when you get to the end of the sentence that you realize you’ve been “lead down the garden path” and have to re-parse the sentence to get the intended meaning. It’s similar to a device used in humor called paraprosdokian (Greek παρά meaning “against” and προσδοκία meaning “expectation”), which is where the end of a sentence or phrase flips the expected meaning to something unexpected, which becomes the source of the humor. Here are some examples:

“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening – but this wasn’t it.”
“The last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings – but it’s still on the list.”
“She got her good looks from her father – he’s a plastic surgeon.”
“I take life with a pinch of salt – and a lime with a shot of tequila.”

2 responses to “A Lesson in Ambiguity from the ASHA Leader

  1. One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know!

    • Ha, perfect example of paraprosdokian. Feel free to share any others – I’m working on updating part of a presentation I do on “Humor and Polysemy” and these are the sort of examples I like to use 😉

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