Many of my students with Developmental Language Disorders (DLD) lack insight and have poorly developed metalinguistic (the ability to think about and discuss language) and metacognitive (think about and reflect upon own thinking) skills. This, of course, creates a significant challenge for them in both social and academic settings. Not only do they have a poorly developed inner dialogue for critical thinking purposes but they also because they present with significant self-monitoring and self-correcting challenges during speaking and reading tasks.
There are numerous therapeutic goals suitable for improving metalinguistic and metacognitive abilities for social and academic purposes. These include repairing communicative breakdowns, adjusting tone of voice to different audiences, repairing syntactically, pragmatically, and semantically incorrect sentences, producing definitions of various figurative language expressions, and much, much more. However, there is one goal, which both my students and I find particularly useful, and fun, for this purpose and that is the interpretation of ambiguously worded sentences.
Syntactic ambiguity, or amphibology, occurs when a sentence could be interpreted by the listener in a variety of ways due to its ambiguous structure. Typically, this occurs not due to the range of meanings of single words in a sentence (lexical ambiguity), but rather due to the relationship between the words and clauses in the presented sentence.
This deceptively simple-looking task is actually far more complex than the students realize. It requires a solid vocabulary base as well as good manipulation of language in order for the students to formulate coherent and cohesive explanations that do not utilize and reuse too many parts of the original ambiguously worded sentence.
Very generally speaking, sentence ambiguities can be local or global. If a sentence is locally ambiguous (aka “garden path”), the listeners’ confusion will be cleared once they heard the entire sentence. However, if a sentence is globally ambiguous, then it will continue to remain ambiguous even after its heard in its entirety.
Lets’ take a look at an example of an ambiguously worded global phrase, which I’ve read, while walking on the beach during my vacation: ‘Octopus Boarding’. Seems innocuous enough, right? Well, as adults we can immediately come up with a myriad of explanations. Perhaps that particular spot was a place where people boarded up their octopedes into boxes. Perhaps, the sign indicated that this was a boarding house for octopedes where they could obtain room and board. Still, another explanation is that this is where octopedes went to boarding school, and so on and so forth. By now you are probably mildly intrigued and would like to find out what the sign actually meant. In this particular case, it was an indication that this was a location for a boarding of the catamaran entitled, you guessed it, Octopus!
Of course, when I presented the written text (without the picture) to my 13-year-old adolescent students, they had an incredibly difficult time generating even one, much less several explanations of what this ambiguously-phrased statement actually meant. This, of course, gave me the idea not only to have them work on this goal but to A. create a list of globally syntactically ambiguously worded sentences; b. locate websites containing many more ambiguously worded sentences, so I could share them with my fellow SLPs. A word of caution, though! Make sure to screen the below sentences and website links very carefully in order to determine their suitability for your students in terms of complexity as well as subject matter (use of profanities; adult subject matter, etc.).
Below are 20 ambiguously worded newspaper and advertisement headlines for your use from a variety of online sources.
- The professor said on Monday he would give an exam.
- The chicken is ready to eat.
- The burglar threatened the student with the knife.
- Visiting relatives can be boring.
- I saw the man with the binoculars
- Look at that bird with one eye
- I watched her duck
- The peasants are revolting
- I saw a man on a hill with a telescope.
- He fed her cat food.
- Police helps dog bite victim
- Enraged cow injures farmer with ax
- Court to try shooting defendant
- Stolen painting found by tree
- Two sisters reunited after 18 years in checkout counter
- Killer sentenced to die for second time in 10 years
- Most parents and doctors trust Tylenol
- Come meet our new French pastry chef
- Robert went to the bank.
- I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
You can find hundreds more ambiguously worded sentences in the below links.
- Ambiguous newspaper headlines Catanduanes Tribune (32 sentences)
- Ambiguous Headlines Fun with Words Website (33 sentences)
- Actual Newspaper Headlines davidvanalstyne.com website (~100 sentences; *contains adult subject matter)
- Linguistic Humor Headlines Univ. of Penn. Dept of Linguistics (~120 sentences)
- Bonus: Ambiguous words Dillfrog Muse rhyming dictionary, which happens to be a really cool site which you should absolutely check out.
Interested in creating your own ambiguous sentences? Here is some quick advice, use a telegraphic style and omit the copulas, which will, in turn, create a syntactic ambiguity.
So now that they have this plethora of sentences to choose from, here’s a quick example of how I approach ambiguous sentence interpretation in my sessions. First, I provide the students with a definition and explain that these sentences could mean different things depending on their context. Then, I provide a few examples of ambiguously worded sentences and generate clear, coherent and cohesive explanations regarding their different meanings.
For example, let’s use sentence # 18 on my list: ‘Robert went to the bank’. Here I may explain, that ‘Robert went to visit his financial institution where he keeps his money‘, or ‘Robert went to the bank of a river, perhaps to do some fishing‘. Of course, the language that I use with my students varies with their age and level of cognitive and linguistic abilities. I may use the word ‘financial institution’, with a 14-year-old, but use the explanation, ‘a bank where Robert keeps his money’ with a 10-year-old.
Then I provide my students with select sentences (I try to arrange them in a hierarchy from simple to more complex) and ask them to generate their own explanations of what the sentences could potentially mean. I also make sure to provide them with plenty of prompts, cues, as well as scaffolding to ensure that their experience success in their explanations.
However, I don’t just stop with the oral portion of this goal. Its literacy-based extensions include having the students read the sentences rather than have me present them orally. Furthermore, once the students have provided me with two satisfactory explanations of the presented ambiguous sentence, I ask them to select at least one explanation and clarify it in writing, so the meaning of the sentence becomes clear.
I find that this goal goes a long way in promoting my students metalinguistic and metacognitive abilities, deepens their insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as facilitates critical thinking in the form of constant self-questioning as well as the evaluation of self-produced information. Even students as young as 8-9 years of age can benefit significantly from this goal if adapted correctly to meet their linguistic needs.
So give it a try, and let me know what you think!