In this December 2011 post I wrote about a contract dispute caused by uncertainty over what the phrase “said cost” referred to.
On further reflection, I realized that we were dealing with a kind of ambiguity that I hadn’t written about previously. To get a better sense of the basis of that ambiguity, I contacted Geoff Pullum, co-editor of my linguistics reference work of choice, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Here’s part of what he had to say:
I think it’s about imprecision concerning choice of antecedents of anaphoric elements. The issue is whether “said cost” refers back to “the cost” or to “half of the cost”. That’s like which man the “he” refers to in this example: John can read Bill’s email. He is furious.
You can’t tell, right? Maybe Bill is furious because he found out John hacked in; maybe John is furious because of what he saw in Bill’s emails.
I think it likely that this kind of ambiguity—which I’ll be referring to as “antecedent ambiguity,” unless anyone has a better idea—has featured in many a lawsuit. I’d like to know of additional examples, to flesh out a discussion of the subject in the third edition of MSCD. I’ll do some exploratory searches on Westlaw, but if you know of any caselaw featuring language that exhibits antecedent ambiguity, I’d be please if you’d let me know about it.
By the way, I commend to you Geoff’s most recent post on Language Log, about the marketing slogan “Sofa King Low.”