Syntactic Ambiguity


Syntactic Ambiguity

Ericksonian Hypnotic Language Patterns

They were speaking ambiguities
So far we’ve covered three of the four different categories of ambiguities. We have looked at phonological, scope and punctuation ambiguities. Today we examine the last category.

Syntactic Ambiguities are sentences in which it is unclear who refers to what. What is the modifier modifying? There are actually two types of syntactic ambiguity.

The first type is when is when you add “ing” to a verb and put it in front of a noun. (verb + ing + noun)

Milk + ing + cows … “They were milking cows.”

The sentence, “they were milking cows,” could be understood to mean that those fine animals over there are a particular type of cow. They were milking cows. Or the sentence could mean that them thar farmers were in the act of extracting milk from their domesticated bovine… “They were milking cows.”

“Running lights can be hazardous.”

“They were inspiring musicians.”

The famous example from Bandler and Grinder’s book The Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., vol I.: “Hypnotizing Hypnotists can be tricky.”

The other form of syntactic ambiguity arises with nominalizations.
Some words can be used as a verb or a noun.
“…the touch of her hand…”
To touch is a verb. Putting a “the” in front of it nominalizes it into a noun. Add it to another noun and you have a delightful ambiguity. Is the speaker referring to the act of touching a woman’s hand or a woman touching someone’s hand?

“…the feeling of leather…”
Is the speaker referring to the act of feeling leather or to the emotions leather feels. (If so, that would make this a Selectional Restriction violation, too, a pattern we’ll cover more later. Selectional Restriction violations are phrases like “the happy chair” or “the proud gates.”

Ambiguities can be quite humorous and humor has great theraputic effects.
“After the Novocain took effect on his infected left molar, Bob was feeling all right.”
“It was Christmas Eve and we were all feeling Merry.” (How did she feel about that?)

About Doug O'Brien

Doug O’Brien is a Master Practitioner and Trainer of NLP, and a Certified Hypnotherapist. In 1988, while assisting at NLP and NAC training seminars with Anthony Robbins, Doug achieved the designation of Master Trainer. He now conducts numerous seminars of his own around the globe (specializing in the “Sleight of Mouth” patterns of Robert Dilts, NLP Certification Courses, and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy) and helped found Columbia-Presbyterian’s Department of Complementary Medicine with Dr. Mehmet Oz.

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