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The Puzzle of Ambiguity

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Diarmuid Ó Séaghdha.

At this session of the NLIP Reading Group we’ll be discussing the following paper:

Thomas Wasow, Amy Perfors, and David Beaver. 2005. The Puzzle of Ambiguity. In O. Orgun and P. Sells (eds) Morphology and The Web of Grammar: Essays in Memory of Steven G. Lapointe. CSLI Publications.

Abstract Montague’s celebrated claim that no “important theoretical difference exists between formal and natural languages” (Montague 1974; 188) implies that ambiguity is not theoretically important, for ambiguity abounds in natural languages, whereas formal languages are unambiguous by design. More generally, the pervasiveness of ambiguity in natural languages seems to be widely regarded as unremarkable. Our objective in this paper is to argue, to the contrary, that the highly ambiguous character of natural languages is surprising, and that the very existence of ambiguity calls for an explanation. Section 1 clarifies what we mean by ambiguity, discussing the distinction between vagueness and ambiguity. We go on to identify several distinct types of ambiguity. Section 2 presents evidence that English is massively ambiguous. Section 3 elaborates our central argument: if (as is widely claimed) ambiguity impedes efficient communication, then one would expect languages to evolve so as to reduce ambiguity; but this does not appear to have happened. Section 4 responds to some possible objections to the argument in Section 3. Section 5 explores some possible strategies for explaining ambiguity, concluding with pointers to our ongoing research on the subject.

This talk is part of the Natural Language Processing Reading Group series.

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