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NG47. Ambiguity (2)

BikersNetwork Grammar has been asked how it would deal with the following sentences.

(173) An off-duty officer warned of a potential war between rival biker gangs

(174) An off-duty officer warned of a potential war between rival biker gangs managed to avoid the crime scene and bodily harm

The role of warned doesn’t become clear until sentence-end in (173) where it’s the main verb, or until managed in (174) where it heads a relative clause.  Sentence (174) seems legitimate.  It doesn’t disconcert the hearer and can’t be described as a ‘garden path’ (something LanguidSlog doesn’t believe in – see LS11).

We have to explain how NG keeps open its options for warned.

Split activation

Use of a reduced relative clause is something these sentences do have in common with garden paths contrived by psycholinguists.  My own investigation using the British National Corpus showed that the reduced form occurs more frequently than relative pronouns (such as who) so we have to take seriously the ambiguity of regular past forms like warned.

The analysis can’t rely on a phonological distinction between the simple past and the participle.  Therefore the analysis must allow for the same phonological word giving either a main clause or a relative clause.

Like gave__Olivia in LS8, officer__warned has two readings.  Unlike gave__Olivia the two readings have different arrangements of parent/dependent.  This means that either word as dependent could bring the activation for delivering a proposition.  But neither proposition can get full activation immediately otherwise there would be premature delivery – and that would give the meaning ‘the officer warned by his own warning’.

A similar arrangement appeared in LS46 for visiting__relatives where the question of initial activation was ignored.  The situation here is not quite the same because one of the alternatives, WARN / AGENT / OFFICER, must be delivered by default if the sentence ends at gangs.  For that it is useful to assume an initial 4:2 split of activation between the two propositions.

The two propositions are WARN / AGENT / OFFICER / 4 and OFFICER / QUALIF / WARN / 2.  In (173), nothing occurs to cause reassignment of OFFICER and so by default WARN / AGENT / OFFICER / 6 is delivered at sentence-end.

In (174), managed is encountered and a junction with officer is detected.  This invalidates WARN / AGENT / OFFICER and its four units are reallocated enabling OFFICER / QUALIF / WARN / 6 to be delivered.

You might question this analysis because a similar one ought to rescue The horse raced past the barn fell.  I suspect the reason it doesn’t is that completion of the main clause is so abrupt.  The horse raced past the barn fell while jumping the fence is better.


Well, actually no.  In (174), managed is not necessarily the main verb.  It could be a participle introducing a further relative clause – as in:

(175) …officer warned of…gangs managed by drug barons avoided…harm

There are competing junctions – gangs__managed for another relative clause as well as officer__managed for the main clause.

At warned we get two competing propositions from two words. At managed we get two competing propositions from three words – MANAGE / AGENT / OFFICER and GANG / QUALIF / MANAGE.

LanguidSlog has always assumed that multiple propositions can be created at a particular word P, and that junctions between P and more than one preceding word can be involved.  For example, sentence (13) from LS14 has Nero__is and Olivia__is:

(13) Olivia Nero is giving to Poppaea

The propositions from these junctions are not in competition.  Both GIVE / AGENT / NERO and GIVE / THEME / OLIVIA are eventually delivered.

But there has never before been a situation where junctions between P and two different preceding words are in competition.

Only one of these is delivered.

Influence of parent/dependent roles?

Dummy sentence (176) lets us look generally at pairs of junctions, one between the first and third of three words and the other between the second and third.

(176) … aaa … bbb … ccc ….

Two propositions from junctions aaa__ccc and bbb__ccc are deliverable as in sentence (13).

Two propositions from junctions  aaa__ccc and bbb__ccc are deliverable as in:

(177) … kissed beautiful Poppaea

Propositions from junctions aaa__ccc and bbb__ccc as in (175) are in competition.  Only one of them can be delivered.  Although both junctions are allowed by the lexicon, only one of them is valid in this context.

The pair of junctions aaa__ccc and bbb__ccc is impossible because a word cannot be the dependent in more than one junction.

And of course, activation is split across two propositions from two words: they are always in competition.

These observations are rather narrowly based.  Are they actually general rules?  It could be useful to have a rule expressed in these terms for sentences like (175).  If you can/can’t think of any exceptions, do please comment.


It is difficult to imagine an underlying mechanism for generalisations like aaa__ccc with bbb__ccc.  The actual mechanism could simply be the one NG already relies upon: P / M / C / R / C / M / P – junctions selecting rules creating appropriate propositions.

From early in LanguidSlog, we’ve seen this mechanism create propositions for immediate delivery; for example, at Poppaea in (177):

And we’ve seen the mechanism create split propositions for deferred delivery; for example, at Olivia in Nero gave Olivia…:

Now we need a variant of that at warned in (175):

And surely it’s possible for the following to be created at managed in (175):

The leftwards scan for junctions with managed then continues and the null is replaced by OFFICER.

Still some complication

At this point in the processing there are still two propositions – MANAGE / AGENT / OFFICER / 4 and gang / qualif / manage / 2.

If the sentence continues as in (175) with by, the proposition MANAGE / AGENT / (null) / 6 is created as explained for sentence 11 in LS15.  This may be confusing but MANAGE must have a different AGENT in (174) and (175).  Then at barons, the proposition becomes MANAGE / AGENT / BARON / 6 and MANAGE / AGENT / OFFICER dies.

If the sentence continues as in (174), MANAGE / AGENT / OFFICER is the stronger at sentence-end and inherits from the other proposition the two units of activation it needs for delivery.  It is possible that the killing-off of GANG / QUALIF / MANAGE happens as soon as it is evident that there’s no managed__by junction.  However that seems complicated and would have to deal with a noun-phrase continuation as in (178) as well as an infinitival clause as in (174).

(178) …officer warned of…gangs managed his fear of bodily harm

Don’t look down!

It’s satisfying that the basic idea presented way back in NG7 is still answering questions posed by much more challenging sentences.  It may not be obvious but Network Grammar is a voyage of discovery.  Solving problems and drafting material never run more than a few weeks ahead of publication. Indeed at this point I don’t even know what next week’s topic will be.