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Understanding Grammatical Ambiguity in English Language

Studying English language can be full of fun. Many people may have similar experience that even a slight alternation of only one word in a sentence (for instance, through a misspell or misprint) can cause that sentence to have a sense quite different from the one intended by the original writer. This situation usually occurs in Chinese sentence too, because one Chinese word can easily carry more than two different meanings.

As long as such an alternation produces an amusing result, we could say this is an example of lexical humor, a humor that just caused by the distortion of single words or on words getting exchanged.

Now we, China Sources Team, would share with you an idea about grammatical ambiguity, by showing you a simple joke which depends not on individual words, but on the structure of words, that is said, on grammar. But what should grammatical ambiguity basically be? By definition, English grammatical ambiguity should be interpreted as grammar in English that permits one sentence to be understood in two quite different ways.

Here let us show you a joke as an example about grammatical ambiguity, from the following simple conversation between John and David:

John: It is difficult to find people to clean.
David: That is not true, our city should be full of dirty people.

Please do not start laughing at this point first. Both John and David are completely normal guys. In fact, they are close friends and they just chat unintentionally just like making a simple joke.

But how this simple conversation can help you understand what grammatical ambiguity should be? To better understand this, you must know what John actually means first. In fact, what he actually means is that it is hard to find people who can work as amahs. Since part of an amah's duty should be to clean floors and dishes etc, and John is saying, perhaps that not many people like doing this kind of job any more.

But David misunderstands John deliberately. From David's meaning, it can be completely possible, though a bit crazy, to think that what John likes doing in his spare time is to search for dirty people in the city, so that he can wash them.

If this was what John really liked to do, then it would be perfectly correct, at least grammatically, for him to bemoan the fact dirty people are scarce by saying, "it is difficult to find people to clean". Unfortunately, it was not his actual meaning at all.

The main point of this joke is that David, by replying to John in this way, should be implying that John is a crazy guy who washes people for his hobby. If we wanted to put this technically, we could say David exploits the grammatical ambiguity of John's sentence. This kind of joke should be quite unique in English study, because as you may know, Chinese language, for instance, does not have similar grammatical ambiguity as English does. Understanding grammatical ambiguity shall therefore be a key step for studying English grammar properly.

So as a brief summary, when one person states an expression, "it is difficult to find people to XXX", he could mean, grammatically, either:

It is difficult to find people who will do XXX; or
It is difficult to find people to whom one can do XXX.

Although this expression has two different meanings, they are both grammatically correct. This shall explain why grammatical ambiguity can be so interesting when people firstly discover it during their English grammar learning.

The above is just one simple joke which depends not on individual words, but on the structure of words (i.e.: on grammar). For such kind of grammatical ambiguity, we, China Sources Team, encourage you should always try raising a laugh if you discover any similar interesting joke during your process of language study. You can then easily understand that learning English language shall not be necessarily a boring task, it can be full of fun instead.


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