Ambiguity II: Trump, cognitive issues, and no heart

Out of the 256 possible interpretations of this headline, only TWO seem to be the most obvious ones. Why?

We’ve recently been talking about ambiguity.  Ambiguity, from a linguist’s perspective, is the situation of having more than a single possible meaning, and as we’ve seen, there are MANY ways to be ambiguous.

Here’s a nice example.  It comes from the renowned linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.  Like many linguists, he collects ambiguous headlines.  They are not at all difficult to find, but some are cooler than others.  Here’s his current favorite:


What can one say about this? From a linguistic perspective, what are the possible interpretations?

  • There is some doctor who does or does not have things going on with respect to his or her heart–we’ll get into what those things could be momentarily.
  • There is some doctor who said something about someone who does or does not have things going on with respect to his or her heart.

Now, the second interpretation is the intended one, so let’s go with it for the rest of the discussion.  (We’ll talk later about what happens if we don’t.)  What’s the issue with the rest?

  • One interpretation is that the comma indicates what’s called a kind of coordination or conjunction: it corresponds to or, and the intended meaning is that the person who’s being talked about does not have heart or cognitive issues.  (That’s not the full story here–more below.)
  • Another interpretation is that the comma indicates a new clause.  In this case, it would correspond to the doctor saying that the person under discussion does not have a heart, and also has cognitive issues.

How many possible meanings so far?  We’ve listed four, but it’s a big underestimate.

Why does Pinker like this one so much?  Because that last interpretation says this: Trump has no heart, and he also has cognitive issues.  That jives pretty well with what I would say, personally, and apparently Pinker, too–so, yeah, I would love to see that in a newspaper (assuming that his cognitive issues didn’t lead to him nuking somebody in a petulant frenzy before he could be (legally) put out of office.

Now: we’re not done yet.  Here are some remaining issues:

  • What is the scope of issues?  Are we talking about heart issues and/or cognitive issues, or are we talking about cognitive issues, and some unspecified thing about the heart?
  • What is the scope of no?  Are we talking about no heart and no cognitive issues, or are we asserting something about cognitive issues, plus something about there being no heart involved in some way?
  • What does heart mean?  Are we talking about an anatomical organ, or are we talking metaphorically, where heart can mean something like inherent kindness?  Or maybe we’re talking metaphorically, but where the metaphorical meaning of heart is something like courage?  (See this video for the meaning of “heart,” “heart checks,” and “showing heart” in prison.) Does it mean a seasonal check on the core of timber?  (Seriously–check it out on
  • What does issue mean?  We actually had a blog post that was primarily on that question, in the context of analyzing Henry Reed’s poem Returning of Issue.

So: how many interpretations of that headline are there?  A low estimate would be two for each of the questions that we thought about above, so each one of those points doubles the number of possible interpretations.  That’s 2 to the 8th power: 256 possible interpretations.  You found another point of ambiguity?  You just doubled the number of interpretations again, to 512.  (Go ahead–find another one, and tell us about it in the Comments section.)

Here’s a question for you: of the 256 possible interpretations, just two of them seem to be the most obvious ones:

  1. The one where the doctor is talking about someone else, where issues modifies (technically, “has scope over”) both heart and cognitive, the meaning of heart is the anatomical organ, and no modifies both of heart issues and cognitive issues.
  2. The one where Trump is unkind and has cognitive issues.


…and here’s an observation for you: my profession is about getting computers to differentiate between the possible interpretations in biomedical journal articles and in health records, finding the one intended interpretation out of all of the possible ones.  I don’t expect to have it solved any time soon.  🙂

11 thoughts on “Ambiguity II: Trump, cognitive issues, and no heart”

  1. Come on you should show some veneration for the First Representative of your shining people, or at least feel some pity for the miserable people who received this no-heart-but-cognitive-issues first representative .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I certainly feel pity for my poor country and its inhabitants! The only thing to which I can compare his election is 9/11, and frankly, the repercussions of his election are going to be worse for America than the repercussions of 9/11.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Doesn’t context automatically determine which options we reject out of hand? Any prior articles on the same subject in the previous week would cause us to go immediately for a small number of hot favourites. And it must also depend surely on the subject matter of a publication. And the target audience: you make the point yourself that a bunch of woodcutters are going to come to the article with different assumptions than the general public.

    So: the more general the audience, the more literal the interpretation?

    Or: 50% of humanity is primed to hate Trump and look for the pejorative meaning in any headline about him. It’s what they’re already thinking. It’s true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question–let’s clarify.

      You bring up *we*–in other words, what humans do. In truth, we don’t know *exactly* what people do, but it definitely does seem to be the case that we use context.

      That leaves open the question of what context is. The answer probably is not simple–context minimally includes, for example, other words in the “discourse.” But, it also includes the people in the conversation; cultural things; where you are… (Walk into a restaurant, and someone says “how many?”, and you’re going to tell them how many PEOPLE–because that’s what they’re asking. Walk up to a hotdog stand and someone asks you “how many?”, and you’re going to tell them how many hot dogs you want–because that’s what they’re asking.)

      So, I don’t know how what you’re suggesting works, but I do know that we–humans–probably do what you’re suggesting.

      So, then (if you’re me), you have to try to get a computer to resolve the ambiguities, too. Well, I can model the surrounding words, sorta. (There’s a classic paper on this by a guy named Lesk, called “How to tell a pine cone from an ice cream cone.”) How do I build a computational model of the people in the conversation? Of the culture? Of whether you’re in a restaurant or at a hotdog stand? I don’t have a clue. (A whole approach to this stuff actually fell apart over that question–to get past the answer to “how many?” and on to the rest of the meal they just had to keep multiplying and multiplying the kinds of restaurants in their models, and at some point it just became implausible.)

      …and that’s why I feel a certain amount of job security. 🙂


      1. Yeah, nerds are pretty safe. Trump proves we already live in a version of ‘Idiocracy’ where the man with even half a semester of coding is king. Comparatively.

        I think I have flu or some sissy pale imitation thereof oncoming: therefore I recuse myself from the kind of hard thinking an attempt at a serious answer would require. Excellent points all – I don’t doubt it, although I always develop a stitch and oxygen deficit trying to keep up with your thought processes. But I’ve got enough of a headache already. *sniffles* *whimpers*


  3. My favorite ambiguous headline is from the British press: “British left waffles on Falkland Islands.” I’m reasonably sure there’s no way to read that as if was supposed to be read on the first try.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Not bad, but it doesn’t baffle me the way the waffle one did–probably because American English doesn’t use “waffle” in quite the way British English does. I looked at it and was blank for what seemed to be a very long stretch of time.

        Liked by 2 people

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