Ambiguity Misunderstandings

When I took a course in linguistics in university, we learned pretty soon that language can be ambiguous. Some sentences could be interpreted in two different forms, and both are correct.

Lexical and structural ambiguity

As a matter of fact there is more than one type of ambiguity. There’s “simple” ambiguity, sometimes referred to as lexical ambiguity, where words have more than one meaning. For example, words like “light”, “note”, or “bear” are lexically ambiguous.  Take, for instance the sentence “Our beloved queen cannot bear children”.

And then there’s syntactic (or structural) ambiguity, where it’s clear what each word means, but one could compose it in two different ways, for example “The police officer shot the burglar with the gun”. So the fact that language can be ambiguous is not very surprising, and I guess it’s safe to say that everyone knows this intuitively.

Ambiguity is especially known in the realm of NLP, there are countless research papers which are devoted to its aspects, sub-problems, different types of ambiguity, ways to combat this problem etc.

But even after all this time studying and working in the field of NLP, it can sneak up on me.

A new type of ambiguity

Recently I came across this new type of ambiguity, which I’m not sure even how to categorize. I call it “Date Filter Ambiguity”. A simple example of it can be the following sentence: “How many bugs did Mark solve since March”. Aside from the fact that this implies that we are talking about March of last year, does this include the bugs solved in the month March or not?

But wait! There’s a whole weirder aspect to it. If my boss asks me “How many hours did you work this week”, what does he really mean? Usually he asks this on Fridays, just before I go home for the weekend, so it’s pretty clear that “this week” refers to the past week which started on Monday. But what if he asks it on Monday at noon? My mind automatically relates his question to refer to last week, and not over the past three hours, right? It’s fairly weird that the same question is parsed* differently in my head based on the day it’s asked on! How about Wednesday? The parsing in my head depends on the thing that we’re talking about, because when my boss asks me, on the same Monday meeting “Please remind me, what your assignments are for this week”, he clearly means “this next week”!

So it’s safe to assume that this is my last post for this week.


*Parse = analyze (a sentence) into its parts and describe their syntactic roles

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Yossi Vainshtein

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